You Can Redraw Work Boundaries This Year—and Make Them Stick
The workday ballooned during the pandemic—but it’s possible to push back without jeopardising your career.
The workday ballooned during the pandemic—but it’s possible to push back without jeopardising your career.
Have we forgotten how to say no?
Our boundaries have been scrambled by two years of working through a crisis, often from the same place we do everything else. Managers know we’re home. Employees want to prove themselves in a world without face time. There’s a new, unspoken contract between bosses and workers: You can work where you want, but the flexibility comes at a personal cost. You’re always on.
“The employer feels like, you’re lucky enough to be at home. You’re kind of at my beck and call,” says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a management professor at Purdue University who studies work-life boundaries, and their dissolution.
I’ve heard about it from both sides. A funeral-home manager in Georgia was surprised when his team confronted him about his frequent Saturday night text messages about sales quotas. A pharmaceutical company employee back in her Boston office was cornered in the kitchen by a colleague demanding to know why she hadn’t responded to his email yet. It was 8:30 a.m. He’d sent it at 6:30 a.m.
Returning to the office doesn’t appear to have reset the equilibrium for some people. In a way, it can be the worst of both worlds: You lost the freedom of logging on from home, but you still have the back-to-back Zooms and lunchtime meetings.
“You’ve learned to work a way that was kind of crazy,” Dr. Kossek says.
Restoring some of the walls between our jobs and our lives requires pushing back, graciously and smartly. Dr. Kossek suggests setting a timer to go off at 10 minutes before the hour to signal to your videoconference compatriots that it’s time for you to move on to something else, whether it’s cooking dinner or writing a report.
Consider whether you and a colleague can pair up and cover each other in meetings if family responsibilities, like a daycare closure or a kid’s soccer game, creep into the workday, Dr. Kossek says. And talk to your team about how fast you’re expected to respond to internal and client emails. Is the pace reasonable? If not, prep with co-workers on what better expectations would look like and broach the topic with your manager together.
“If you’re the only one, you’re going to get stigmatized,” Dr. Kossek says.
There are risks. Say no too often and you’ll miss out on big projects, alienate your colleagues or even jeopardize your career. And yet, saying yes and then missing a deadline can be just as detrimental, says Karen Shafrir Vladeck, a partner at an Austin, Texas, law firm.
Learn to read your boss and understand when something is really an emergency that necessitates cancelling your plans, or not, she says. (Of course, to some bosses, everything is an emergency.)
And perfect the art of saying no without it sounding like a no. “I’m so slammed right now, I’ll be available on Monday,” or “I’m so busy, but I know Jennifer has time to help,” Ms. Vladeck suggests. “There’s nothing worse than someone just saying no and then walking away and leaving it,” she says.
A few years ago, Christina Heath, a single parent in Lutz, Fla., started feeling burned out. Her work as a project manager felt like it was taking over her life, and also seemed oddly robotic and drained of humanity. So she started speaking up. She told her boss that she couldn’t juggle more than four projects at a time without the quality slipping. Instead of tackling after-hours emails, she’d respond that she’d get to them in the morning.
“It doesn’t feel good. It’s actually really scary,” she says of setting boundaries. But eventually it became liberating. After about six months, her colleagues stopped sending the late emails. Her project load got lighter. Yet everyone remained happy with her work, she says.
The key is to be respectful but resolute. No one will believe your boundaries if you don’t seem confident in them yourself, she says.
How to figure out where the lines should be? Max Yoder, chief executive of Lessonly, an Indianapolis company that provides employee-training software, sorts everything from business lunches to time with his daughter into five categories. The buckets range from “I’m committed,” to “I’m trying” to “I don’t care.”
“It’s a way for me to take two competing things and saying, which one do I care about more?” he says. He recently passed on a trip to San Diego for a company board meeting—Zooming in instead—so he could spend time with his parents and friends visiting from out of town. Before the pandemic, he was more likely to give priority to work over life.
“I don’t want to be that anymore,” he says.
Of course, it’s easier to say no and deal with the consequences when you’re more senior and have more job security. If you’re nervous you might lose out on would-be clients or irritate your boss, remember that boundaries can come with some wiggle room, says Elizabeth Knox, principal of MatchPace, a Washington, D.C.-based organizational-effectiveness firm. Check your calendar: 85% of the time, you should be sticking to your limits, like not taking calls after 6 p.m. The remainder, you compromise.
Some people are finding their pandemic habits are hard to break. Communications executive Carrie Schum spent 250 more hours on client work—an extra third—from April 2020 to April 2021, as compared with the year prior. Without her commute and evening gym routine, she found it hard to log off. Even when she returned to her D.C. office twice a week last spring, she still found herself hunkering down with writing projects and flipping through email after hours.
She tried leaving her phone in her home office starting at 6 p.m. (Self-grade on that experiment: C+.) She tried banishing her phone from the bedroom at night. (Her husband bought her a clock to use as an alarm instead; she went months without plugging it in.)
One thing finally brought some relief: She joined two soccer leagues, which have 7 p.m. games that last a few hours. Playing requires being fully present, and has helped break the hold that being on around the clock had on her.
“You start to figure it out,” she says. “That’s just not life.”
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Passwords aren’t enough to fend off hackers; these dongles are the best defense
Strong passwords are very important, but they’re not enough to protect you from cybercriminals.
Passwords can be leaked or guessed. The key to online security is protecting your account with a strong secondary measure, typically a single-use code. This is referred to as “two-factor authentication,” or 2FA, as the nerds know it.
I’ve written about all the different types of 2FA, such as getting those codes sent via text message or generated in an authenticator app. Having any kind of second factor is better than none at all, but physical security keys—little dongles that you plug into a USB port or tap on your phone during account logins—offer the highest level of protection.
Security keys have been around for over a decade, but now they’re in the spotlight: Apple recently introduced support for them as an optional, added protection for Apple ID accounts. Last month, Twitter removed text-message-based authentication as an option for nonpaying users, recommending instead an authenticator app or security key.
Some people are hesitant to use security keys because carrying around a physical object seems burdensome and they come with a $30-and-up added cost. Plus, what happens if they get lost?
I’ve used security keys since 2016 and think they are actually easier to manage than codes—especially with accounts that don’t require frequent logins. They’re not only convenient, but they can’t be copied or faked by hackers, so they’re safer, too.
Here’s how to weigh the benefits and common concerns of adding one or two of these to your keychain.
Many internet services support the use of security keys, and you can use the same security key to unlock accounts on many different services. I recommend two from industry leader Yubico:
Other options include Google’s Titan security keys ($30 and up). In addition to working with laptops and tablets with USB ports, these keys are compatible with smartphones that have NFC wireless. Most smartphones these days have that, since it’s the technology behind wireless payments such as Apple Pay.
Adam Marrè, chief information security officer at cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf, recommends that your chosen key is certified by the FIDO Alliance, which governs the standards of these devices.
To add a key, look in the security settings of your major accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.). During setup, it will prompt you to insert the key into your laptop or tablet’s port or hold the key close to your phone for wireless contact.
Apple requires you to add two security keys to your Apple ID account, in case you lose one.
Typically, when you log in, you just go to the app or website where you’ve set up a key, enter your username and password as usual, then once again insert the key into the device or hold it close. (Some keys have a metal tab you have to press to activate.) At that point, the service should let you right in.
Getting those two-factor login codes via text message is convenient, but if you are someone criminals are targeting, you could be the victim of SIM swapping. That’s where thieves convince carriers to port your number to a new phone in their possession, and they use it along with your stolen password to hack your accounts.
Even if they don’t go to all that trouble, criminals might try to trick you to hand them your codes, by calling you or spoofing a website you typically visit. At that point they can use the code for about 60 seconds to try to break in, said Ryan Noon, chief executive at security firm Material Security.
Security keys protect you in two ways: First, there’s no code to steal, and second, they use a security protocol to verify the website’s domain during login, so they won’t work on fake sites.
You can also add an authenticator app such as Authy to your most important accounts, to use only as a backup. But once you add these secure methods, you should consider removing the text-message code option.
In the rare case that someone snoops your passcode then steals your iPhone, beware: The perpetrator could still make Apple ID account changes using only the passcode, and even remove security keys from your account.
The most important rule of security keys is to buy an extra one (or two).
“Think of your security key as you would a house or car key,” said Derek Hanson, Yubico’s vice president of solutions architecture. “It’s always recommended that you have a spare.”
If you lose a security key, remove it from your accounts immediately. You should have already registered your spare or an authenticator app as a backup to use in the meantime.
Start with your most valuable accounts: Google, Apple, Microsoft, your password manager, your social–media accounts and your government accounts.
When it comes to financial institutions, many banks don’t offer security-key protection as an option, though most leading crypto exchanges do.
Security professionals and tech companies widely agree that passkeys are the future. They’re a new type of software option that combines the high security of a physical key with the convenience of biometrics such as your face or fingerprints. Passkeys are supported across the Android, iOS, Mac and Windows platforms, and some of your favourite sites already let you use them.
You can create a passkey on Facebook in security settings by following the app’s instructions under the security-key option. Dropbox has a similar passkey setup. Once you’re done, you’ll use your face or fingerprint as a second factor, instead of a code or key.
Eventually, physical security keys could be what we keep safe in strong boxes, as backups for our biometric-enabled passkeys. Even then, you’re probably going to want to have spares.
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