Breaking Barriers?! Boundary Management - The New Normal

Breaking Barriers?! Boundary Management - The New Normal
Photo by Max Böhme / Unsplash

It's a brave new world we live in. Digitalization has erased the clear lines that once separated our work and personal lives. This phenomenon, which psychologists call "extended work-related availability,"[1] has led to a spillover of work tasks into personal life and vice versa. This is a fact of modern life, but how we manage it can make a significant difference in our lives.

In the midst of this change, traditional models of maintaining strict boundaries or integrating work and life may not always work. The answer to this problem may lie in a theory called "Boundary Theory"[2]. Boundary Theory suggests that people create mental fences between different areas of their lives to help them maintain their roles in different areas.

Think about it. How often have you heard the advice, "Don't take your work home with you"? It sounds like good advice, but it doesn't take into account the reality of our increasingly connected lives. Studies instead advocate more individualistic approaches - understanding that different people may have different preferences and needs when it comes to setting boundaries between work and life.

The Power of I-Deals

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The power to effectively manage work-life boundaries comes from understanding individual needs and situations. One way to do this is through "idiosyncratic deals," or I-Deals, as researchers[3] calls them. An I-Deal is a personalized agreement between an employee/leader and his or her employer that takes into account the employer's unique needs and circumstances.

Shifting paradigms

Leaders and organizations must understand this. It's time to move away from traditional HR practices and embrace more person-centered policies. Leaders can help their teams navigate the tricky balance between work commitments and personal life with a Family-Supportive Supervision[4] approach.
The four key dimensions of this leadership style are

  1. Emotional Support: This dimension refers to leaders being aware of their employees' personal commitments, being attentive to their feelings, discussing family matters in a considerate manner, and demonstrating sensitivity to their employees' family circumstances.
  2. Instrumental support: This focuses on how managers respond to the work and family demands of their employees. In particular, it's about how leaders help employees balance work and personal responsibilities in their daily lives. This may include flexible rescheduling of work appointments to accommodate family emergencies.
  3. Role modeling behaviors: Leaders model strategies and behaviors that can help balance work and family demands. This includes how they personally manage conflicts between their own work demands and family responsibilities.
  4. Creative work-family management: This proactive dimension involves strategic and innovative behaviors by leaders to help their employees work more efficiently while meeting their family demands. For example, they may introduce new rules to improve the conditions for remote work.

Employees must also adapt to this evolving environment. It's up to us to manage our work-life boundaries using different strategies based on our needs.

Existing research has identified a variety of boundary management strategies and grouped them into five distinct categories[5].

Strategies Definition Examples
Physical Strategies Leverage physical boundaries that actually exist between professional and personal roles Physical separation of work and home; commuting; setting up a separate room as a home office workspace; wearing typical work vs. casual clothing
Time Strategies Make strategic decisions about how to allocate your time resources Determine the start and end of work hours; schedule leisure activities in the calendar; account for breaks, buffers, and recovery time.
Behavioral Strategies Behaviors used in social contexts to construct and negotiate boundaries between domains of life. Develop routines/rituals for the transition between work and leisure; negotiate rules for dealing with personal matters during work hours (and vice versa).
Communication Strategies Communicate openly and transparently about boundary management with people in your professional and personal life. Explicitly communicate expectations and preferences; establish team and family agreements; confront individuals who do not respect preferred boundaries.
Cognitive-Emotional Strategies Techniques to detach from one area of life when in another area of life Use mindfulness techniques, relaxation exercises, or methods to mentally disconnect from work.

Final Thoughts

In a world where the lines between our professional and personal lives continue to blur, a more personalized approach to boundary management is essential. It may go against common expectations, but when navigated effectively, it can help us achieve a healthier work-life balance in this fast-paced digital age.

So whether you're an leader, an HR professional, or an employee, remember that in the world of work-life balance, one size doesn't fit all. It's time to respect individual needs and rethink what work-life balance means in the 21st century.

  1. Seiferling, N. (2019, August 29). Arbeitsbezogene erweiterte Erreichbarkeit. In M. A. Wirtz (Hrsg.): Dorsch Lexikon der Psychologie. Bern: Hogrefe. Retrieved from: ↩︎

  2. Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., & Fugate, M. (2000). All in a day's work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. Academy of Management Review, 25(3), 472-491. ↩︎

  3. Rousseau, D. M., Ho, V. T., & Greenberg, J. (2006). I-deals: Idiosyncratic terms in employment relationships. The Academy of Management Review, 31(4), 977–994. ↩︎

  4. Hammer, L. B., Kossek, E. E., Yragui, N. L., Bodner, T. E., & Hanson, G. C. (2009). Development and validation of a multidimensional measure of family supportive supervisor behaviors (FSSB). Journal of Management, 35(4), 837–856. ↩︎

  5. Müller, N. & Kempen, R. (2023) Boundary Management: Wie wir Grenzen in einer grenzenlosen Arbeitswelt gestalten. Report Psychologie 48(07+08/2023), 12-15 ↩︎