Our culture proclaims that we are valuable because of our titles, our busy schedules, or our salaries. Yet scripture reminds us that we are more than our work, our accolades, our calendars. We are God’s children. We are made to flourish. So why doesn’t teleworking always feel like thriving? Boundaries.
What do boundaries look like in an email-driven age of working from home?
While most companies’ response to the pandemic has enabled a lot of good—the opportunity to maintain an income while in lockdown, to work from home while caring for sick children, to maintain some sense of consistency even when being sick ourselves—we would be deceiving ourselves if we claimed all the changes were good.
In a work world already increasingly dominated by email and all-hours of communication, once home becomes our workplace, what becomes of boundaries? After all, our lives are about more than just work.
It used to be that, at least for many careers, there was a fairly sharp divide between work and home. The office or workplace was outside of the home, creating a clear geographical distinction. However, with the introduction of new technologies like personal computers, pagers, and now smartphones, the lines between work and home have blurred significantly. With the addition of email to our phones, not to mention work communication and “productivity” apps, we’re easier to reach than ever.
But are we ever unreachable?
In Praise of Unreachability
As valuable as it can be to quickly and easily be able to ask a question of a coworker outside of our vicinity, we may have overdone it. With computers we can hold in the palm of our hand, and all the requisite apps and features beyond mere phone calls and text messages, we’ve become quite used to being accessible. Moreover, if our bosses and coworkers model this as well, we can feel bad to not provide such access in return.
However, most of us are not truly expected to be reachable at all hours. There are roles that clearly (and contractually) stipulate times when a worker must be “on call” outside of typical, agreed-upon working hours, but many of us don’t have such responsibilities. And yet, through a lack of intentionally set boundaries, we can tend to live as if we’re on call 24/7.
While there may be a time and place for being instantly reachable through call or text—and this is particularly tricky for salaried or self-employed individuals—this does not mean we must be reachable to all constituents or through all modes at all times. Even if your job might require—or at least encourages—you to be reachable through phone or text for emergency situations, this does not mean that you must be active on email and other work-related apps at all hours.
To a large extent, we can set expectations based on our choices and how we communicate our availability. We can choose to set aside moments of daily rest and weekly sabbath. We can choose when we are on versus off of email and work-related apps, we can only give our cell number to those who most need it or whom we trust to respect our boundaries. Further, it’s ultimately up to us to decide how much we are checking our phones (or computers) and when we silence notifications.
“Oh, it’s just one email; let me quickly respond to it . . .” How many of us have said or thought this while at home, perhaps in the evening around dinner or bedtime? For myself, working part-time in a role that rarely has anything particularly time-sensitive, I thought I had a pretty good handle on my work boundaries. But when I get a work-related text outside of typical work hours, there is an initial sense of urgency that comes along with it, even if the request is not urgent.
“It will be quick,” we tell ourselves. “It’s just one email.” Yes, sometimes it is. But other times—and you know the times—we get sucked in. Fifteen minutes go by while our kids are waiting for us to come play a board game, read a bedtime story, or tuck them in. Twenty minutes go by while our spouse has finished washing the dishes and scrolls through their own phone, waiting for a chance to connect before the next workday rolls around.
Our (seemingly) small choices can have significant impact—hence James Clear’s coining of “atomic” habits. And choosing to love God, love others, and love ourselves well can help transform our dangerous habits into intentional ones.
Managing Expectations—Ours and Others’
Not only must we question how we are setting our own boundaries (what we will respond to when, which applications we will keep active, and which notifications to keep on), but what about those who are expecting responses from us? Does the receipt of an email or text mean that we must respond instantaneously? Sometimes matters are urgent, but what about the countless others that are not? When we have co workers—moreover, especially when we have superiors—working longer, later, and earlier hours than we are, it is all too easy to feel like we’re the ones slacking off. Not only do text messages and emails have a feel of urgency to them in their very nature, but we also don’t want to look like we’re slacking off (or off of Slack).
How are we to respond to this increasingly “always on” mindset in the workforce? Certainly, as people of faith, we have considered the importance of sabbath rest—a day-long break once a week—but what about daily rhythms of rest, boundaries from the barrage of activity, “shoulds,” and “oughts?”
Responding well will take some guts, and a lot of intentionality. But it is well worth it. While continuing to do our work with excellence, it is also healthy to be realistic about the requirements and expectations. This may mean having a difficult conversation with a superior. This may mean setting an automatic reply to your email or status message on work apps each evening.
With a diversity of jobs, we all have different things expected of us, but each of us is worthy of healthy, supportive boundaries that give us rest from and honor our work. Rather than being about escaping work or shirking responsibility, it is taking care. Boundaries are good for us, and they are also good for our work. Moreover, contrary to the messages the broader culture tends to send, our lives are more than our work. We are more than our roles or job titles. We are children of God—made to flourish.