Establishing boundaries around work hours and communication

While it may be (slightly!) easier to set boundaries around our own working hours and communication style, it can be hard for team members to do the same. Much of it comes down to team culture and expectations around communication and work hours.

Establishing boundaries around work hours and communication
Photo by Jan Canty / Unsplash

With remote work becoming more of the norm these days, it is becoming increasingly common for folks to work extra hours--oftentimes without even realizing it. This includes not just putting in extra hours on work tasks, but also feeling the need to respond immediately to every email or chat message as they come in. As a result, the separation between work hours and home hours has become more blurred, and the chances for burnout are even greater. As leaders, we can set the tone and expectations around working schedule and expected time to respond to messages, emails and other notifications.

Onboarding

For new hires, it's best to describe the expected boundaries of communication and work hours for the role--ideally very early on during onboarding.

Communication expectations

Define what communication looks like in your team and in your organization. Generally, this falls into two types of communication: asynchronous ( async) or synchronous. Some organizations (like Automattic) are entirely asynchronous in expectations around communication; however, many organizations tend to fall into a combination of the two. What this means can depend a lot on the team and company culture. In general I view them like this:

  • asynchronous: Communication can happen any time, it isn't immediate, and the expectation isn't for an immediate reply, either.
  • synchronous: Communication doesn't need to be immediate, but the expectation is to respond sometime during the working day. If the team member is too busy, then they should at least respond and set expectations with the person reaching out around when they should recieve a reply.

During onboarding, it's helpful to present these expectations during a 1:1. For example, this could include providing expected communication by describing what the expectation is during work hours, before and after work hours during the week, and on weekends. Additionally, this can also be included in a team handbook (such as a page in Confluence, or GitHub, depending on what your team uses).

Work hour expectations

It is ideal to establish, ideally in your first 1:1, expectations around work hours. During an initial call, I work with the new hire to see what hours they typically prefer to work, and understand if they have peferences, such as the following:

  • Are they an early riser and early starter, preferring to sign on at 7:30am?
  • Or, do they want to sleep in, and prefer starting closer to 10am and working into the evening?

There are some set expectations, such as being available for team rituals (such as standup, team meeting calls, etc.) but generally, I work with the individual to find the best schedule for them.

Once you've established these working hours, treat it like a contract.

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Never break this rule. If you must, do so with a clear reason, and provide explicit details on the urgency.

Be sure to be clear on expectations around the reasons why you might reach out outside of their regular hours. For example, if it's their week on call for critical issues or there's a security incident that requries immediate attention.

Check-in regularly

Regularly check-in during 1:1 calls on how they feel their current work-life balance is. I keep the following question in my rotation to ask at least once a month:

How are you feeling with your current work/life balance? Have there been any areas of concern?

I also recommend doing a pulse check whenever there is a time that requires extra hours, or if you notice a report that seems to reply to emails or work chats outside of work hours. In reaching out, I will first first mention how much I appeciate their response, but also ask if they are feeling a need to constantly check work messages, and set expectations that there’s not a need to do so outside of regular work hours. If they do feel they need to check and reply, then I will dig a little bit deeper into why they may feel the need to reply--it could be anything from team culture that needs adjusting to a feeling of needing to always be "online".

Handling lapses in communication

While it is important to be sensitive to their working hours and setting expectations around communication, if you are noticing issues with communication from team members, be sure to follow up as soon as possible. I make sure to include this as a talking point during 1:1 calls and provide concrete examples where I'd like to see more communication or responses from them. Going in, I will try and understand if there is anything that is causing the lapses in communication, such as distractions at work or even feeling overwhelmed with the amount of notifications and messages that they feel they need to reply to. Depending on the source, I'll work with them to create a path forward and provide ways to better manage communication, such as alotting specific periods of time during the day to focus on replying to chats.


As managers, to best catch burnout around communication and working extra hours, we should aim to work with our reports to establish expectations around communication, understand their preferred work schedule, and to regularly check-in to make sure they aren't feeling overwhelmed or that their work-life balance is slipping. It is also important to stay on top of how and when folks are communicating, and to always be available to provide guidance and coaching as needed. While this may not catch all cases of burnout, this is a great place to start to make sure we're setting a healthy work-life balance for everyone on the team.