August 29 2019

3 Strategies For Setting Workplace Boundaries

Ask any corporate team, and the same classic moment comes to mind: amidst the natural chit-chat of a project meeting on a Monday morning, a colleague stumbles – and breaks corporate flow with a statement that is just ‘not quite right’: awkward smiles are exchanged, and the topic quickly shifts to the weather to the bemusement of the project manager at the other end of the table.

Photo credit :  US-Women-GettyImages-1160858454

But this scenario is difficult, as every manager recognises that a friend-like work environment does come with key productivity benefits: communication should be structured, but also spontaneous; and a healthy work ethic should be re-enforced socially, not just through a dry HR manual. But at the end of the day, team members are here to work towards measurable project targets – not come knocking on your door as a friend on a Saturday night: team members should be allocated for performance, not for personality; productive criticism should be expected, not an afterthought; and if necessary, a socially- unproductive colleague should be removed at any given notice.

However, establishing when ‘enough is enough’ can be achieved in advance through smart tweaks to your project and team structure. Here are three strategies for setting workplace boundaries that allow your workplace relationships to flourish whilst placing respect and social boundaries front-and-centre.

Angela Ahrendts: 'The last five years have been the most stimulating, challenging and fulfilling of my career' © Bloomberg


Harking back to the disruptive tech scene of the 1990s, emerging giants such as Microsoft appeared to have little in common with the ‘traditional workplace’: a radical new product surely meant a radically-restructured work environment; and leading this ‘blur’ between work and life created through modern devices would surely mean leaving traditional workplace norms behind – or is that what really happened?

Take a second to speak to Melinda Gates, and she would quickly disagree: behind the ‘let’s work until 10pm bravado’ pushed by the Ballmer-Gates duo, the former executive insists that there had always been much more formality behind the scenes: Ultimately, once an organisation reaches a certain size, the margin between structured and un-structured communication begins to represent a large portion of the productivity pie; where firm boundaries ensure that projects tick along smoothly – poor behaviours can wreak havoc at an industrial scale.

And when we delve into the rigour behind the MBA courses that guided executives such as Mrs. Gates, this concept of ‘quantifying’ productive workplace behaviour is actually grounded in relationship psychology: humans are intrinsically wired to model social expectations on the behavioural precedent set at the beginning of a relationship, and this also carries over into the workplace environment. Ultimately, setting the correct set of social boundaries at the beginning of the relationship not only removes the perceived awkwardness of correcting behaviour later when in the midst of an active project – but also ensures that principles are ‘hard-wired’ at the neurological level (Afolabi, E. 2015).



Returning to the concept of the ‘disruptive industry’, many admirers of the large industry giants may assume that this formality stops at the on-boarding session – with workplace relationships as fluid as the cutting-edge teams and projects that govern them.

But this image is far from accurate: in-fact, this structured evaluation of ‘behavioural norms’ and workplace boundaries is actually unique to organisations required to coordinate large teams at scale. On the surface, mentions of ‘organisational behaviour’ from CEO Satya Nadella are often imagined as a metaphor for procedures and systems; not behaviour and people.


The healthcare boundary management model, 2014


But in reality, the social boundaries and behaviours conducted by team members are treated systemically as a performance indicator. And we take a closer look at complex organisations in more ‘life or death’ domains such as healthcare, this efficiency of communication is pushed for even further.

In addition to evaluating compliance to training and procedures during each performance review sessions, healthcare organisations go further to quantify ‘behavioural compliance’ to ensure that teams are collaborating at fully efficiency, and to ensure that patient-time is maximised (Science Direct, 2014).



Both structuring boundaries early in the relationship and embedding this measure throughout each project are key for ensuring smooth workplace boundaries, and that projects run smoothly as a result. But although effectively managing your team will require maintaining social boundaries, there is one boundary where ‘breaking’ through the norm should be encouraged – and that is an unapologetic drive to push fellow team members to engage in active learning.

Unlike the procedural changes that can be integrated into your existing team and project workflow, instilling this behavioural ‘push’ to break through the learning barrier requires in- person leadership – and that requires you to demonstrate active learning as the project manager: the most effective method for instilling a new habit among your team members is to attribute ‘social’ value through active leadership – and this means ‘practicing what you preach’ by remaining open to learning as the team leader (Kossek, E. 2016).


In this week’s article, we explored three strategies for managing boundaries within the workplace environment to optimise communication and the productivity between your team members. If you are a manager or project leader, consider completing the following tasks to improve your team:

  1. Establish boundaries in the on-boarding session – not later in the project: Although your existing on-boarding package may be very effective in establishing boundaries when it comes to admin and basic procedures, consider briefing your new hire with a list of basic social protocols contained within your existing HR manual: the reality is that 80% of new hires view HR manuals as a legal document to review in cases of dispute or major misconduct – not as a guide for behaviour that can improve their productivity and the work for colleagues around them.

  2. Integrate ‘behavioural evaluation’ into your performance review sessions: In addition to ‘systematising’ an overview of your existing workplace social policies during the initial on- boarding period, also consider how this established set of standards can be re-visited when evaluating performance throughout each project: to re-enforce the relationship between performance and social conduct between colleagues, consider pre-planning a segment of each performance review session that measures the extent to which your team members are maintaining compliance. In a traditional scenario, raising issues such as time lost to gossip or unproductive ‘chit chat’ can be difficult – but formalising this as an official impact to project performance enables you to raise this repeatedly without surprise.