There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the four-day work week, as companies such as Kickstarter and Wildbit institute this new policy. Is this a reaction to the biggest complaint about remote work brought about by the pandemic, the endless bleed of work into personal time? This all comes down to a company’s culture of boundaries. How is the code, often unspoken, of work-life balance manifested in your organization? And how do you create a culture of healthy boundaries? As a leader, the challenge of driving innovation to keep your team at peak performance but also staying focused on the bottom line can often come down to culture.

4 tips to implement a culture of healthy boundaries:

Decide why healthy boundaries are important to your organization. Boundaries aren’t there for their own sake, they are there to contribute to successful business outcomes. It’s hard to shift your mindset from more work must be better, to BETTER work is better if you haven’t thought about why that might be. Maybe it’s because your employees’ mental health is a top priority, and you really want them to rest and recharge. Maybe because your workloads are cyclical and you want your teams to be thoughtful about taking advantage of the downtime, if there will be times in the future you will need more from them, hours-wise. Maybe your work requires lots of creativity and strategic thinking, attributes that have steep drop-offs in marginal gains after a certain number of hours. And lastly, particularly for this modern era, maybe you’re planning to navigate hybrid work, where setting on and off periods is helpful for the people in the office trying to align with people out of the office. 

To state the obvious, focusing on one of these doesn’t mean that you don’t care about employees’ mental health. But finding ways to link mental health with business outcomes, that happier employees are more productive, more creative, and stay longer makes it easier to consider business plans that might seem limiting if your lens is old-fashioned productivity. If you truly believed your team could be just as successful in a four-day workweek, why would you ask them to work five?

Solicit feedback (anonymously) about where boundaries should fall. Once you’ve figured out what benefit is most important for your organization, tell your team about your goals. Everyone should be bought into what should be a benefit for all. An anonymous survey is a great place to understand where the team thinks there is room to set boundaries without massively disrupting the flow of output. Maybe your company can stop all emails at 5 pm, maybe it wouldn’t be possible to do that before 7 or 8 pm. Asking the team some clear questions will help you set the rules to optimize for a culture that respects boundaries.

Most of the time setting boundaries is about time; too many early meetings, too many late emails. But boundaries can also be about channels, some people find text messages for business invasive, some people prefer Slack channels to stay very strictly within a defined mode of back and forth. Each business is different. What’s important is that you find a way to unplug your employees from being overloaded by work when it’s not necessary or even beneficial.

Trust and Launch. Assuming you have a good team, then the optimum boundary guidelines should be based on generosity, that people can manage their own timelines and workflows like adults. Take the feedback you solicited and use it to design a set of boundaries for “work time” and “not work time” that meet your business needs, but that most importantly give your employees the space needed to do their jobs well. And then commit loudly and publicly to these new guidelines, letting your actions speak louder than your words. Not only do you have to respect these new boundaries, but it also helps if you enjoy them too.

If it’s possible, make it normal to use technology to help with this, like prompts that stop you from sending late-night emails or company-wide calendar settings that clearly show when meetings are scheduled outside of normal working hours.

Culture in workplaces can often be implicit, with people learning the behavior of those who have been there longer. If you want to break this cycle for habits that no longer serve the team, repeating the message is key, not only what the guidelines are, but why you think boundaries will help everyone to feel better about work and home life.

Iterate Changes like this don’t happen in a vacuum. If you have metrics you can use to track productivity, it’s valuable to measure the success of the new guidelines. Keep soliciting feedback, both ad hoc and more formally. Is this helping retention? Sick days? While you don’t want to make knee-jerk changes, quarterly or half-yearly assessments can help you make sure that the boundaries don’t become a burden or are negatively impacting work.

Being explicit about culture makes it clear that leadership believes in fostering a positive workplace, where people bring their best selves in order to do their best work. Ultimately, culture is a huge component in employee behavior, engagement, and retention and the best managers should be maximizing culture in order to maximize profits.