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Accessible All the Time: Setting Boundaries in an Age of Being “Always On”

We live in a world that is constantly connected. During every moment of every day, we can communicate by phone, email, video conference, instant message, not to mention social media platforms. So, how can you still set aside time for yourself?

Jan 29th 2020
President Boomer Consulting
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I’d been working on closing a deal with a new client for months, and as he prepared to sign a contract, he said, “Now, when I call, I expect you to answer.”

I looked him in the eye and said, “As long as it’s between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, I will.”

My new client didn’t necessarily like that I wasn’t willing to make myself available to him 24/7, but he respected it because I was clear about my boundaries and communicated them clearly.

How many people in our profession are willing to do the same?

We Live in an "Always On" Culture

We live in a world that is constantly connected. During every moment of every day, we can communicate by phone, email, video conference, instant message, not to mention social media platforms.

In many ways, that connectivity has improved our lives. More than ever before, people can work where they want, when they want. Last year, FlexJobs surveyed over 1,200 people on how flexible work impacts their lives and relationships. According to the results, 89 percent said flexible work allows them to take better care of themselves and 87 percent said it enables them to spend more time with family and friends.

But there’s a downside to being available to work 24/7: the expectation that you’ll be available by smartphone or laptop to respond to any minor query, day or night. A recent study by Virginia Tech found that just the expectation of receiving work emails after hours can cause anxiety and stress – not just in the worker, but in members of their family. “Our research exposes the reality,” said Professor William Becker, “flexible work boundaries often turn into work without boundaries, compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

Mobile devices and communication channels aren’t going away anytime soon. So it’s up to us to set boundaries with clients, coworkers and bosses.

How to Set Boundaries in an "Always On" Culture

The first step toward establishing boundaries is to realize that you need to take responsibility for setting them. Often, the biggest enemy is ourselves – not the technology, clients or employers. We think we need to be available all the time because we have a mobile device or a home office, but in most cases, it’s simply not the reality – nor should it be.

1. Establish Priorities and Parameters

Think back to college. Remember how professors provided “office hours” that defined when they would be available to give advice or talk about anything on a student’s mind? Those office hours facilitated communication between professors and students without trying to have rushed conversations before or after class.

What are your office hours? Whether you work in a traditional office, work from home, or a combination of the two, you need to define the times when you are available to answer client calls, texts, and emails. It’s difficult for those hours to be a firm decision because individuals have different priorities. You need to set those boundaries for yourself.

For me, work hours are between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. After 6 p.m. is family time. For you, it might be different. Parents of young children might switch off at 5 p.m. but get back online for an hour or two after the kids are in bed. If you’re on the West Coast but your largest client is on the East Coast, you might need to start your workday earlier, but you can end your day earlier, too. Look at your priorities and set your parameters in a way that suits your family and your clients.

2. Communicate

Once you’ve established office hours, communicate them to clients and colleagues. If you’re not clear about when you are and aren’t available, don’t be surprised when people don’t follow the rules.

If you clearly communicate up front, the people you work with – both internally and externally, will understand when you are and aren’t available and, hopefully, make efforts to respect those boundaries. If they don’t, at least they won’t be surprised when you’re not answering phone calls or responding to emails at 6 a.m. on Sunday.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible when there is a real emergency or put in extra time when busy season or an important project demands it. But people shouldn’t expect you to be available round the clock for any and all requests.

3. Practice What You Preach

How do you respect your clients’ boundaries? Are you sending emails on weekends and holidays or trying to get ahold of them at 8 p.m.? When you communicate your working hours, ask about theirs as well.

Occasionally, I’ll open my laptop outside of my “office hours” to catch up on emails in the late evening. To respect my clients’ time and reinforce my own boundaries, I set up a rule on my email to only deliver emails during work hours. I can compose a response at 10 p.m., but it won’t hit my client’s inbox until 7 a.m. the following day. If you tell your clients you’re not available in the evenings, then you’re sending emails at 10 p.m., clients will start thinking you actually are available at that time.

4. Protect Your Time

No matter how well you communicate with clients and coworkers, you will get emails during off hours – it’s just the nature of the working world today. When you see those notifications pop up, it’s easy to think you’ll just respond quickly, but the next thing you know, you’ve spent an hour of “family time” responding to emails.

We’ve all become so hooked on our smartphones that we’ve nearly forgotten how to live without them. So it helps to come up with ways to protect your time and boundaries. If you’re having dinner with your family, leave your phone in another room, turn off your ringer and let calls go to voicemail. When I go to dinner with a client, I leave my phone in my purse or even back in my hotel room so I won’t be distracted during a face-to-face conversation.

The way we honor relationships is to give them time. Protect and honor your relationships with your family, friends, clients and yourself by setting boundaries, communicating them clearly, and turning off your phone and laptop. In an increasingly ‘always on’ culture, we can’t forget the importance of unplugging.

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