Getting Real About Workplace Boundaries: A Three-Part Series

Part Three - Boundaries with Remote Teams

If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Office, you’ll recognize what can happen when coworkers have poor boundaries with one another – office romances, secrets and scandals, and lots of interpersonal drama. While it may be entertaining on the television screen, it’s clear that a work environment like the one depicted in The Office is problematic at best.

Boundaries are important at work to increase productivity, lower work stress, and respect both yourself and your coworkers. Boundaries can be used to keep bad things out, like distractions and toxic behaviors – and to keep good things in, like professional development and meaningful team gatherings. Organizations with good boundaries experience less turnover, more workplace satisfaction, and better outcomes.

While boundaries are important in all workplace settings, it can get more complicated when team members work remotely. Boundaries are essential when it comes to maintaining connections with remote team members to ensure that each individual feels supported and valued for their contributions in the workplace. Without intentional connection, team members risk feeling isolated from their coworkers and the purpose of their work, which can have an overall negative impact.

Heavin Schmidt, Director of Intensive In-Home Services (IIS) and Intensive Family Reunification Services (IFRS), is based in St. Louis and understands the challenges of creating a sense of camaraderie with a remote team.

“My geographical region is roughly 18 counties top to bottom,” said Heavin. “It’s a three-hour drive from one end to the other. Some counties have only one person doing their job because they are so rural.”

Heavin currently manages 40 team members on the eastern side of Missouri, five of whom are managers, and the others are specialists. Each IIS/IFRS specialist has two to three cases in their designated region and works with families who are at immediate risk of being separated due to mental illness, emotional disturbances, juvenile delinquency, family violence, abuse, or neglect.

Sitting with families while they are in crisis can get intense – even for those who are well-trained – and it’s important that team members know when and how to reach out for support.

“I talk with managers a lot about their boundaries,” said Heavin. “They’re there to allow specialists to vent and seek guidance on their cases, but a lot of the coaching I do with them is keeping them focused on the goals and not getting caught up in the background noise.”

Part of Heavin’s work with managers is communicating the importance of modeling boundaries with their direct reports. 

“Managers need to be very mindful of how they are delivering those messages,” said Heavin. If, for example, a manager verbally promotes boundaries with work but does not put those words into practice themselves, then their direct report is getting a very confusing and unhelpful message.

Expectations must also be reasonable, says Heavin, and sometimes leaders unintentionally forget that.

“I try to model the accessibility and grace that comes with the job and also purposeful self-care,” said Heavin. “Being able to say no with respect and understanding is encouraged.”

Some remote team members may need more support with this than others, especially if they are not self-starters or need help to get work done. New team members may also come in with exceptionally high expectations and may need help setting and reinforcing boundaries with clients to avoid burnout. This may include learning when it’s okay to filter a call and how to communicate to clients the difference between a true after-hours emergency and something that can wait until the next day.

While team members do this important boundary-setting work with their managers, it’s important that they have space to come together with their fellow team members to debrief, ask questions, and connect.

“At every team meeting, managers also have someone bring a case for group consultation,” said Heavin. This regular practice allows team members to learn from one another and not feel so alone with challenging cases.

Heavin also instructs her managers to prioritize scheduling one in-person meeting a month and then choose how they connect with their team members during the time in between.

Overall, Heavin is proud of her team and believes that they navigate the difficulties of remote work well, especially when they prioritize good communication, both internally with team members and externally with clients.

Check out the rest of our "Getting Real About Workplace Boundaries" series: