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It can be difficult to set boundaries at work. Here are a few scenarios to show you how to do so, securely.

Setting boundaries at work is a difficult but essential task, especially in an uncertain economic climate where everyone is expected to do more with less than before. This means that establishing and maintaining healthy work boundaries can be the difference between feeling overworked, versus staying productive and motivated. 

Is “doing more with less” a gateway to burnout?

Pretty much every tech company has declared 2023 to be their “year of efficiency”.  This has upended engineering with hiring freezes, layoffs, and reduced headcount. The result? Existing employees are working at capacity – some even doing the work of several people.  

In these circumstances it is not uncommon for individuals to feel pressured to work harder, putting in longer hours to keep up with an increased workload. And ultimately, this added pressure of accomplishing more in a shorter time leads to feeling overworked and struggling to find a healthy work-life balance.

This is why knowing how to set boundaries and limits effectively is so critical, whether you are in a leadership or an individual contributor (IC) role, and working in an office or remotely. A lack of clear boundaries puts your efficiency and mental well-being at risk, skyrocketing your fatigue and stress levels.

Addressing the issue

The place to start is by having an open conversation with your manager about the parameters you feel you can work in. Let them know what you can and can't accomplish and stay consistent with that. If you're juggling a few plates, discuss how you can best prioritize these tasks and where you can afford to delegate. 

It’s not just what you say that’s important, it’s also when and how you say it: clearly, respectfully, and with emotional intelligence so that together you can find workable solutions that are supportive to everyone involved. 

Scenario one: The overworked IC 

Setting down boundaries can be a daunting task, especially if it’s something you’ve never done before. Let’s take you through some scenarios you might encounter at work and ways to deal with them. 

For example, let's say you’re an individual contributor (IC) in the middle of a huge project with tight timelines. In the midst of all this, your manager then suddenly assigns another project with a similar timeline to you. 

Although you may be tempted to be a hero (perhaps driven by job insecurity) and juggle both projects, taking on this additional task would be impossible for you.

So, how do you tackle this? Without letting any time pass, proactively initiate a conversation with your manager and remind them of the scope of the project you are already working on along with its strict deadline. 

If you get pushback, don’t be shy about asking your manager which tasks they would like you to drop or deprioritize if you take on this new project. 

Setting a boundary and saying “no” doesn’t mean being disrespectful or passive-aggressive about it. It’s about having a direct and open conversation, mapping out the facts of your current workload and the impact additional tasks may have.

Setting and maintaining boundaries ensures that workloads are manageable. This helps the whole team stay productive meaning everyone is less prone to burnout or low morale. By establishing realistic boundaries, teams can make effective progress toward achieving the company’s goals, without the need for unsustainable and counterproductive long working hours. 

Scenario two: The engineering manager with too many projects  

Let's look at another scenario. This time it’s an engineering manager who is leading a team working on three major projects. Senior leadership approaches this manager who is asked to take on another project with aggressive deadlines that requires significant time and resources. The engineering manager knows that the team is already at capacity, so taking on any more work, let alone a new project of this magnitude, could not only affect the quality of the deliverables but also the team’s morale.  

Here, it would be prudent for the engineering manager to communicate to senior leadership the impact of taking on the additional project. 

They could provide a list of tasks to be deprioritized so as to accommodate the new project. For instance, the engineering manager can say, “I understand the importance of this new project, but my team and I are already working on projects A, B, and C. If we pick up this additional assignment, which of the three current ones would you like us to deprioritize?”

In doing this, the engineering manager can effectively present their case, manage expectations, and set a boundary, all the while fulfilling their duties and protecting their team. Moreover, leadership will also be able to clearly see the potential negative impact of their ask and may work with the engineering manager to either adjust the timelines or bring in additional resources. 

Scenario three: The parent engineer on a different timezone  

With distributed teams working in various geographical locations, it is common for individuals to be running so hard and fast that they sometimes completely overlook the time zone factor.  

And for those engineers who have young children, this might be a two-pronged issue.

Let’s say an engineer based on the East Coast has to pick up their young children at 5pm EDT sharp. 

Now, let’s say the rest of this engineer’s coworkers (on an important project) are based on the West Coast and have unanimously agreed to schedule daily status meetings for 1pm PDT – which would be 4pm EDT. These meetings run for roughly 20 minutes, meaning that this engineer has to cut it fine with picking up their children.

The current uncertainty in the job market might be making this parent feel nervous about speaking up, or maybe they just don’t want to be “that person”. But regardless of these two points, the impact that these status meetings have on this individual’s work-life balance cannot be minimized.  

A boundary needs to be implemented so that this particular engineer can be their most productive self, and, in turn, help the team towards their wider goal. The parent should respectfully communicate to the West Coast team how to current setup is negatively impacting their daily life and offer a new meeting time that works for everyone. 

It’s important not to take liberties here. Moving the meeting to a much earlier time, for instance, 10am EDT would mean that the West Coast team would have to start at 7am! A more reasonable time to suggest might be 11am PDT.

Final thoughts 

Boundaries enable you to prioritize tasks, decline additional responsibilities when your plate is full, and delegate work when necessary. In the context of an understaffed environment, laying down boundaries also signals how you value and protect your own time and energy. 

By standing up for yourself and saying no to unreasonable expectations, you’re communicating that your work is valuable. This can help foster a healthy work culture across the board, one where everyone's needs are respected, particularly during difficult and uncertain times.