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Is ‘boundary confusion’ a problem in your office?

4 Nov 2019

A new report from Udemy suggests that blurred boundaries around business attire and working late are an issue for employees.

Online learning platform Udemy recently released its latest Workplace Boundaries Report, outlining the issues that may arise regarding boundaries between the personal and professional aspects of employees’ lives.

Based on the responses of 1,000 full-time office workers in the US, the report looked at how behaviour in the workplace impacts their performance, productivity and satisfaction. Through the study, Udemy’s goal was to investigate potential factors such as bullying, bringing pets to work, inappropriate physical contact and social media usage.

Its findings suggested that employees of all ages can feel challenged by the blurring of lines between their personal and professional lives, as well as by relaxed workplace norms.

The report said: “Employees are feeling pressure to share more of themselves with their co-workers. Not everyone is excited about this.

“And, if you think this is another example of baby boomers and millennials in a culture clash, read on. Our research shows these attitudes don’t strictly align by generation.”

Common issues in co-working

Two thirds of respondents reported having either witnessed or experienced bullying at their place of work, while the same proportion said they don’t want their colleagues to be permitted to bring their pets into the office.

More than half believe that hugging doesn’t belong in a professional environment, and 62pc said that co-workers shouldn’t bring their kids to work. In terms of office attire, 63pc said that workout or ‘athleisure’ clothes are not appropriate in the office.

“With open floor plans, always-on communication, social media and casual workplaces, today’s employees feel increasing pressure to share more with their co-workers, often leading to crossed boundaries,” said Cara Brennan Allamano, senior vice-president of HR at Udemy.

“As our workplace becomes more casual and the impact of the ‘Me Too’ movement continues to reverberate, companies must equip managers and employees with the soft skills needed to address shifting expectations around boundaries at work.”

The study also suggested that employees aren’t confident in dealing with professional relationships in the new context of social media. When propositioned with a social media request from a colleague, 46pc reported feeling pressured to accept it. Less than a quarter of those surveyed said they are connected to their managers on LinkedIn, despite its reputation as a professional networking site.

Managers unprepared and under pressure

Another factor that can contribute to boundary confusion is a lack of guidance from those in management or leadership positions.

“There are a number of reasons that business leaders are struggling with workplace boundaries,” said Deborah Grayson Riegel, CEO of Talk Support, who has taught management and communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It often starts when managers in organisations wrongly assume that their workforce ‘just knows’ how to interact with each other, not realising that these expectations must be explicitly discussed and often vary from company to company, as well as across cultures.

“In organisations where managers aren’t given training, coaching, and ongoing support from their leaders on how to set these expectations and give (and receive) ongoing feedback, the problem is likely to persist – and grow.”

Without the right training, knowledge and skills, managers cannot predict issues that tend to arise in the workplace or they may not be equipped to deal with them effectively.

‘We spend time asking our employees about perks and career opportunities, but it’s time to also ask how we can create an environment where our people feel supported to work more effectively’

Pressures highlighted by managers in the Udemy study included feeling the need to work through lunch breaks and obligations to clock late hours because of employer perks.

The report said: “We see from the responses to our survey that, compared to their non-manager co-workers, managers are feeling more pressure to blur their personal-professional boundaries.

“Companies could do a lot more to support the transition to management with training around soft skills like communication, conflict management and emotional intelligence.”

Starting the conversation

The report also offers tips on navigating uncomfortable scenarios at work, as well as what steps companies can take to establish the right boundaries for their staff and the best supports for their management.

This can be tricky, given the fact that everyone has different preferences and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. However, the report said that it is important for leaders to take responsibility and put things in motion.

Brennan Allamano said: “An important part of our role as people leaders is to start the conversation. For some organisations, those discussions will reveal whether any boundaries are being crossed, and for others the dialogue will focus more on how to navigate challenges that have already been identified.

“We spend time asking our employees about perks and career opportunities, but it’s time to also ask how we can create an environment where our people feel supported to work more effectively.

“I would urge leaders to move past assumptions and ask the questions that will provide an authentic picture of their workforce.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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