It can be hard to get in the zone at work, especially if you’re in an open plan office. It’s doubly tricky to find your flow when you’re constantly interrupted by chatty colleagues. And yet, setting necessary boundaries is easier said than done.
We reached out to experts in a variety of fields for their advice on how to walk the fine line between boundary-positive and coworker-negative. So the next time you find yourself getting more and more work thrown on your plate or dragged into unnecessary meetings, you’ll know how to handle it. Here’s how to get started:
Help your coworkers understand that you don’t report to everyone in the office
“Firstly, the most important opinion is your boss’. If you are delivering for them, start there. If you have multiple people tugging at your resources, go to your direct supervisor for guidance about what to prioritize. Make sure your boss knows about all the work you’redoing. If that means you have to direct other superiors to go through your supervisor or you have to let them know that you will be running it by your boss, the person suddenly may not ‘need your help’ after all… If you have too much work to do, your boss needs to know about it.”
—Sara Stanizai, licensed marriage and family therapist, owner of Prospect Therapy
Try these gentle lines first
“If a coworker bends your ear too frequently or too long, try to let them know in a way that focuses on your objective, not on their derailment of it. Try, for example, ‘These conversations are really great, but I think maybe I need to improve my productivity.’
If someone has a habit of bringing you projects or items to work on which aren’t your responsibility, instead of saying, ‘That’s not my job,’ opt for something gentler, such as, ‘I didn’t plan for this task, so I’m afraid I don’t have any time to allocate to it.’ This not only declines a responsibility which was never meant to be yours, but also sets an inarguable circumstantial barrier: there is no time.”
—Claire Goodwin, legal affairs consultant with Joseph Farzam Law Firm
Talk it out—and provide solutions
“If you have a coworker who you feel isn’t respecting your time or schedule, set up a time to talk. A lot of women skirt around conflict and push it under the rug, but the longer you wait to discuss this problem with your colleague, the more aggravated and upset you will be by the issue. If you can meet in person, that’s best, but otherwise, the phone will do. I would recommend against resolving a problem of this nature via email because tone can often be misconstrued.
If I was in this scenario I’d say something like:
‘Thanks for taking the time today to meet with me. Time is something I really value and appreciate in order to work as efficiently and effectively as I can. And lately, I feel like there have been a few examples [explain examples] where you could be more respectful of my time. I realize this was likely not your intent, but it’s what I’ve perceived and I wanted to provide you with this feedback because you’re a great colleague and I truly enjoy working with you. I want to set you up for professional success as much as I can, and I hope you’d do the same for me.
Moving forward it would mean the world to me if you could [provide solutions ie. show up for our meetings on time and come prepared; give at least 24 hrs notice if you need to reschedule a meeting; if you have a question, Google it before asking or consider if there a better-suited person to field the inquiry]. This is a two-way street, so I will be sure to better communicate when I can and can’t be reached by . How does this sound?”
—Danielle Mulein, director of marketing at Advancing Women Executives
Motivate yourself by envisioning what you’ll gain from setting boundaries at work
“Many of my clients know, intellectually, that they should be setting boundaries. They often know what these should be, like: not agreeing to work late every night, not saying ‘yes’ to every request, etc., but they struggle in actually implementing them. To get past this, I believe a person needs to get closer to what these boundaries willgivethem.
To help, I suggest envisioning what these boundaries, when fully executed, will offer. Ask yourself, ‘By saying no to a request that is beyond my work scope, what will I be able to do?’ The answer will be different for every person, but getting clear on what youget from this act will make you more likely to actually do it.”
—Jane Scudder, certified leadership, development, and career coach
Set up a team schedule
“In the past, I’ve implemented a team schedule, which more or less breaks down how team members can compartmentalize their day without being overwhelmed. By having a team schedule, everyone knows what tasks need to be accomplished each day, and can attack them independently.
I’ve found that if a team member is feeling like their time isn’t being respected, this really offers a scapegoat if any conflict should arise. The team member can easily refer back to the team schedule and, if nothing else, say something like, ‘I really have to get this done or DeeAnn is going to be on me.’
From there, of course, the goal is always to keep the lines of communication open so that if any employee does feel like their time has been undervalued, they feel supported enough by management to ask for a sit-down.”
—DeeAnn Sims, founder of SPBX, a creative agency
When all else fails, keep it simple and say ‘no’
“How to get co-workers to respect your time? Say ‘no.’ (Not all the time, of course.) Ask about how long tasks will take and if you don’t have the time to help, say ‘no.’ Sometimes you have to say, ‘No, I’m sorry. I have other obligations and don’t have the time. Perhaps there is another way you can get it done.’
Be realistic about how much time things take. You help no one by accepting work you can’t complete at a high quality in the time given. Good problem solving is realistic problem solving.”
—Jennifer Hancock, founder of Humanist Learning Systems
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.