You Can Redraw Work Boundaries This Year—and Make Them Stick
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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.

Tue, Jan 25, 2022 11:12amGrey Clock 4 min

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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When couples argue over money, the real source of the conflict usually isn’t on their bank statement.

Financial disagreements tend to be stand-ins for deeper issues in our relationships, researchers and couples counsellors said, since the way we use money is a reflection of our values, character and beliefs. Persistent fights over spending and saving often doom romantic partnerships: Even if you fix the money problem, the underlying issues remain.

To understand what the fights are really about, new research from social scientists at Carleton University in Ottawa began with a unique data set: more than 1,000 posts culled from a relationship forum on the social-media platform Reddit. Money was a major thread in the posts, which largely broke down into complaints about one-sided decision-making, uneven contributions, a lack of shared values and perceived unfairness or irresponsibility.

By analysing and categorising the candid messages, then interviewing hundreds of couples, the researchers said they have isolated some of the recurring patterns behind financial conflicts.

The research found that when partners disagree about mundane expenses, such as grocery bills and shop receipts, they tend to have better relationships. Fights about fair contributions to household finances and perceived financial irresponsibility are particularly detrimental, however.

While there is no cure-all to resolve the disputes, the antidote in many cases is to talk about money more, not less, said Johanna Peetz, a professor of psychology at Carleton who co-authored the study.

“You should discuss finances more in relationships, because then small things won’t escalate into bigger problems,” she said.

A partner might insist on taking a vacation the other can’t afford. Another married couple might want to separate their previously combined finances. Couples might also realize they no longer share values they originally brought to the relationship.

Recognise patterns

Differentiating between your own viewpoint on the money fight from that of your partner is no easy feat, said Thomas Faupl, a marriage and family psychotherapist in San Francisco. Where one person sees an easily solvable problem—overspending on groceries—the other might see an irrevocable rift in the relationship.

Faupl, who specialises in helping couples work through financial difficulties, said many partners succeed in finding common ground that can keep them connected amid heated discussions. Identifying recurring themes in the most frequent conflicts also helps.

“There is something very visceral about money, and for a lot of people, it has to do with security and power,” he said. “There’s permutations on the theme, and that could be around responsibility, it could be around control, it could be around power, it could be around fairness.”

Barbara Krenzer and John Stone first began their relationship more than three decades ago. Early on in their conversations, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based couple opened up about what they both felt to be most important in life: spending quality time with family and investing in lifelong memories.

“We didn’t buy into the big lifestyle,” Krenzer said. “Time is so important and we both valued that.”

For Krenzer and Stone, committing to that shared value meant making sacrifices. Krenzer, a physician, reduced her work hours while raising their three children. Stone trained as an attorney, but once Krenzer went back to full-time work, he looked for a job that let him spend the mornings with the children.

“Compromise: That’s a word they don’t say enough with marriage,” Krenzer said. “You have to get beyond the love and say, ‘Do I want to compromise for them and find that middle ground?’”

Money talks

Talking about numbers behind a behaviour can help bring a couple out of a fight and back to earth, Faupl said. One partner might rue the other’s tightfistedness, but a discussion of the numbers reveals the supposed tightwad is diligently saving money for the couple’s shared future.

“I get under the hood with people so we can get black-and-white numbers on the table,” he said. “Are these conversations accurate, or are they somehow emotionally based?”

Couples might follow tenets of good financial management and build wealth together, but conflict is bound to arise if one partner feels the other isn’t honouring that shared commitment, Faupl said.

“If your partner helps with your savings goals, then that feels instrumental to your own goals, and that is a powerful drive for feeling close to the partner and valuing that relationship,” he said.

A sense of mission

When it comes to sticking out the hard times, “sharing values is important, even more so than sharing personality traits,” Peetz said. In her own research, Peetz found that romantic partners who disagreed about shared values could one day split up as a result.

“That is the crux of the conflict often: They each have a different definition,” she said of themes such as fairness and responsibility.

And sometimes, it is worth it to really dig into the potentially difficult conversations around big money decisions. When things are working well, coming together to achieve these common goals—such as saving for your own retirement or preparing for your children’s financial future—will create intimacy, not money strife.

“That is a powerful drive for feeling close to the partner and valuing that relationship,” she said.


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