Good cultures have clear boundaries

I recently took a week’s “vacation,” which meant I worked one day plus two mornings and maintained email contact. I told my husband repeatedly that I was exhausted and really needed to talk to whoever’s in charge.

Oops. I’m in charge. I had lot of good reasons for working during my days off. Well, maybe not good reasons, but reasons. The truth is, I chose to work.

This is a problem, and it isn’t unique to me.

We have developed a bad habit of equating relentless overworking to the point of burnout a positive attribute. Complaints about workload, lack of sleep and consecutive workdays without a break have become less a complaint than a subtle brag. This is how we demonstrate our value to our peers, our bosses and often our subordinates.

During the pandemic, the idea of a work-life balance became something else: worklife, because working from home meant you actually lived at work. And seeing and experiencing what you were missing by being at the office all day put it all into perspective. Life is short. Anything can happen. Pandemics happen. For me it was an awakening, not just of my own experience but of the experiences of my employees.

I want to have a great company, and that requires a great culture. A machine that makes money but chews people up emotionally and spits them out is not my goal. A great culture is one that people want to participate in, where they feel supported and cared for. Their work matters, and they matter.

But that can’t happen if people are being held hostage, if they never actually leave work because their work-life is worklife and their job resides at work, in their home or wherever they are at the moment. If that is the standard for excelling, we don’t have a supportive culture. We have a people-chewing machine.

Restorative time off is vital, especially in small-business environments. We need to disconnect to refurbish our connections. We know this but struggle to believe it for ourselves or our organizations because it feels impossible.

But we have choices. And we can choose differently. Shutting down the people-chewer takes work, and it won’t look the same everywhere. Recognizing disconnection as vital to your organization requires setting clearly defined boundaries.

  • Clarify your email policy. For example, no one is required to check or respond to email between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., or on weekends.
  • Adequately prepare for time off. What responsibilities will need to be met, and by whom?
  • Make vacations sacred. This starts with the boss. Leadership needs to understand that their behavior implies a standard, even when it runs counter to the rules. And if, as the boss, you break the rules, be explicit that this was your choice and not your expectation. If someone is interrupted on vacation, apologize and make it up to them.
  • Define what is an emergency and how it will be handled. Is it on fire? Was there an ambulance? Is $1 million at stake? Part of having a robust policy is having a clear understanding of when to deviate.
  • Review accountabilities. If you change expectations, how staff is held accountable also must change.

Let your staff take the lead. We have so internalized the messages regarding hard work or constant work that this can be very challenging. The point is to recognize that a high-performing culture supports the human beings who make a great organization, and that means protecting their right to have a great life away from work. ●

Jennifer Ake-Marriott is President & CEO of Redmond Waltz

Jennifer Ake-Marriott

President and CEO


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