Storm clouds brewing in the digital fields

Of many one
engaging the ear as if the Pacific

meant its name, as if the edge of
continent contented us with boundary.
Draw a line from A to B. Live there.

Bin Ramke, Curve of Pursuit

2020 was going to be my year of better managing boundaries. Instead all the boundaries came down as we all battled to #WFHIADGP (‘working from home in a deadly global pandemic’). Soon we found that all of life was a digital melange of work mixed with family and friends with voluntary responsibilities and other commitments. Calls blended with chat, texts flew, communities proliferated and emails just kept coming. Overlayed over the top was a mild case of existential dread. We had realised the long sought future of work digital working nirvana overnight, but like any good utopia it was secretly dystopian.

So what did I learn from this experience for the way we work flexibily in organisations going forward:

Boundaries Matter

If boundaries aren’t there because of the need for physical movement to different spaces or because of clear transitions between different time periods, we need to create them. Work days need to end. Time blocks are useful for productivity. Breaks in work matter. Projects and even relationships end. There is a time to switch off, to stop and we don’t have to be always on to work or to live.

Planning for ‘digital commutes’, scheduling a morning and evening walk, finishing a day or a week with social activities are all important parts of signalling transition. It is also important to manage the interruptions that cross boundaries. We don’t have to answer work calls out of hours or in the middle of other tasks and commitments. Email doesn’t have to be read and managed 24×7

It is also important to ensure that in a flexible working environment that projects have begining and ends. It is easy for project tasks to drift on after a project is complete and become a new level of support and work with little reward of achievement and much less return.

Understanding Context Matters More than Knowing with Certainty

For much of 2020 and even into 2021, we didn’t know exactly what was going on. We may never again manage with our usual false senses of certainty, confidence and security. However, we learned that knowing everything was much less important than understanding the context in the bounds of what we had to do.

I could have spent the last year in the many twists and turns of epidemiology, US Politics or any other controversy, especially as a distraction from the here and now of a lockdown, but gradually I turned my attention to understanding my own context more deeply. Drawing clear boundaries within which I need to understand context and letting other things go, helped me manage the complexity a great deal. The goal was not always to achieve perfect certainty on an ever shifting environment within my own narrow bounds, but to pay greater attention to what was going on and how it influenced me. That was a big win and that presence is ongoing work.

In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me

Bei Dao, The Boundary

No is More Powerful than Yes

I have long known the power of saying no but it became much clearer to me since we started grappling with WFHIADGP. I have a very strong bias to say yes, to do things, to make things work and to stretch for more. I am an enthusiast and I hate missing out.

At the beginning of last year there was a flurry of interest in working from home. I had a lot of interest in my expertise and ideas. I had to work very hard last year to resist that temptation, choosing only the opportunities that I could do and also those to which I added unique value. I also had to accept that this meant ceding the space to others.

I turned down roles and opportunities. I didn’t pursue client engagements. I wound back my social media and social activity. I chose not to do more. I even put my long planned book project on hold as I worked to make all the pieces of my life hang together. No was my boundary enforcer.

It’s a Small World After All

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that the narrower our focus the bigger our impact. Small things done well make big changes possible. Instead of dreaming for the biggest changes possible in one step we can benefit from leveraging small changes in nearby adjacencies. We achieve more if we go step-by-step after a clear and narrow goal. We need to manage boundaries to make the most of our impact. Boundaries provider constraints that help focus, make us creative and help us find those evolutionary changes.

I achieved far more last year in a fully flexible environment than I had thought possible. Productivity was increased and importantly my colleagues and contacts adapted well to the need to redesigning work and projects to an asynchronous, virtual flow. There were undoubtedly new work, social and emotional pressures of lockdowns and a pandemic but the one binding boundary constraint of social distance was not a barrier to engaging with people effectively within an organisation, within a city or across the world. All that was required was to explore the small evolutionary steps to improve performance and to evolve the work outcomes towards success. We did that well.

Let’s not talk
about rampages, disasters,
conflicts or coupes that never
ruined a perfectly good year
during which the sun shined
on the moon, the earth,
and six billion who, for once,
got everything right and not
a single thing wrong.

Hayan Charara, Nothing Happened in 1999
Small evolutionary steps to better work together

One thought on “Boundaryless

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