Creating boundaries is key to achieving life balance as a flexible worker

black woman working from home on the sofa, flexible working

Article by Jane Sparrow, Director and Co-Founder of The Culture Builders

From the interactions I have with many other women, I know that we all value our work but see risks in how we live our lives and achieve the right balance.

The way we live today means we have fewer boundaries than ever before to help us focus our attention on what and who really matters. It’s time for us to take ownership of those boundaries and get intentional about how we manage them.

The phrase ‘work-life balance‘ is often used – never more so with many more of us having to work from home. The loss of physical and mental boundaries has drawn together work and other parts of our life, and often uncomfortably so.

If the office gave us the dedicated space in which to focus without distraction, the commute was a portal that helped us to prepare and unwind at the two ends of the day. With such clear definition and boundaries, ‘work’ had the opportunity to have a natural boundary with the rest of our lives.

This, of course, just isn’t true. Work is a part of our lives. That’s why I prefer to talk about life balance and the need to make sure we have the right equilibrium across all the many different roles in our lives so we can contribute in the way we want to contribute.

I work with many successful career women, and it is typical for them to worry about the impact their career investment is having on other areas of their lives. When you have such concerns, a great exercise is to list all those different responsibilities you have and imagine they’re all segments of a ‘life pie’.

For me, work is a segment alongside being a daughter, a mother, a sister, a wife, a charity ambassador and a dog owner! The size of the segments in my ‘life pie’ constantly need to flex otherwise I’d set myself up to fail. The important thing is that I’m aware of the segments of my pie, the size of them and which need more or less attention at any one time.

On some days, one of those segments, for example, work, might need most of what I’ve got. On a different day, I may be able to spread myself across more segments. It’s when we strive to ‘balance’ all of these segments each day that we are undoubtedly setting ourselves up to fail. We need to think, therefore, much more about successful life integration than balance.

With so much going on, how can we integrate the different parts of our lives and be successful in each of them?

With more of us working from home, as companies embrace flexible working or respond to new Covid-19 restrictions, we need to be good at creating boundaries. These enable us to focus on what matters to us with enough energy and attention. Without the office and commute, boundaries ensure we give those segments of our life pie, including work, the attention they need.

Here are a few ways to set those boundaries:

1 Identify those activities that are non-negotiable and those that can flex – know which activities must take place at a set time and those that just need to happen that week. So, for example, it’s always laptop closed and phone off at 8 so you can focus on your children’s bedtime, but you’ll fit in your two gym sessions when convenient.

2 Have a conversation about boundaries – discuss with the people around you, including your family and your team, and develop a mutual understanding about each other’s boundaries. This leaves no second-guessing and can also ensure that your boundaries do not impact on others – eg. don’t be that leader who disturbs their team out of office hours with late night emails.

3 Create portals between your work and other areas of your life – without the commute, you now need to find other ways to transition. This could be changing your clothes, putting music on your headphones and going for a walk. If you work in the evening, can you set an alarm to stop and give yourself enough time to unwind before bedtime?

4 Use your ‘commute time’ to good effect – when I ask clients how they use their commute, the answer is often ‘I check and answer my emails’. Whether you’re on the train or transitioning between work at home and an evening with friends or family, use that precious cushion of time in between to do something for you.

5 Turn off the technology – this may be an obvious one, but an open laptop and a pinging smartphone will not allow you to turn your focus away from work. Put the computer away, turn off your notifications and focus on the other elements of your life that are important to you

In 2021, I and my colleagues at The Culture Builders commissioned a survey of HR leaders on the evolution of hybrid working, and we published a report based on the findings. We found that the mental health and wellbeing of remote workers was a key concern for companies planning for 2022, along with employee engagement and managing performance.

As we move into 2022, I believe organisations with flexible working will prosper if they enable their people to create their own boundaries to achieve a life balance that keeps them healthy, happy and productive.

Jane SparrowAbout the author

Jane is passionate about enabling others to perform at their best to achieve both organisational and personal goals and has worked with businesses across the world, including Centrica, Edinburgh Napier University, UKTV, Sony, Lane Crawford and HSBC, to create high performance teams and cultures. Jane is a Poly-working and organisational culture expert, co-founder of The Culture Builders, three times published author, MBA programme contributor and thought leader for Cambridge University’s Prince of Wales Business and Sustainability programme.

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