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How to Clear the Messy Distinction Between Personal and Professional

As new and relaxed work policies grow in popularity — such as bringing your dog to work or wearing yoga pants in the office — many employees are actually on the fence. It’s a company leader’s job to find a perfect balance between personal lives and professional settings.

As we head into a new decade, the work world looks quite different than it did 10 years ago. The start of the burnout phenomenon prompted some employers to try and make their workplaces more relaxed. Casual Friday extended to every day. Snack bars, ice-cream breaks, game rooms, and nap areas appeared — and on the more serious side, communication opened up. The line between social and professional began to blur.

Although these initiatives are designed to make employees happier, many people are uncomfortable with the merging of their personal and professional lives.

According to Udemy’s “2019 Workplace Boundaries Report,” employees are becoming weary of modern workplace policies: think allowing pets, children, and public displays of affection. Around half of workers express discomfort around colleagues using workplace chat apps for informal gossip. Additionally, 65% believe athleisure clothing is not appropriate for work. And it’s not just a generational divide — the same study shows workers from newer generations don’t always love this environment, either.

It’s clear that workplace leaders and managers must balance the need to reduce burnout with the need for establishing clear boundaries between professional and personal realms. Here’s how to clarify those lines:

1. Define office expectations. Udemy’s study also suggests that modern workplaces are expected to dissolve traditional hierarchies and policies. However, this shift means employees might be left confused about expectations at work.

To give employees structure and prevent them from feeling lost or left out, leaders should balance a more casual mindset while setting some clear boundaries. For example, instead of saying “anything goes” for the company dress code, provide some key words to guide people when choosing what to wear. Words such as clean, neat, or simple can be surprisingly helpful. In fact, American Airlines updated its dress code in a similar way to give employees more guidance.

2. Pay attention to managers’ training. So much of employees feeling safe, guided, and empowered in the workplace comes from the way leaders and managers connect with them. If you fail to train leaders regularly and thoughtfully, you end up failing employees.

The blurring of the personal and professional is not new — workers have always had to be aware of how their private selves interact publicly. But leaders can help others overcome the anxiety inherent in this negotiation by engaging high-level communication skills. Create an environment where employees feel able to speak up when they’re uncomfortable. It should also be a space where they can keep themselves — and their colleagues — accountable for appropriate behavior and effectiveness.

3. Set best practices for communication. Employees must be able to form fulfilling relationships with their peers to feel engaged and valued at work. Even though newer methods of workplace communication are designed to reduce barriers, they can sometimes interfere with relationship-building. According to the same Udemy study, for example, 37% believe their co-workers are too informal over workplace chat or messaging, and 31% have been recipients of an unwanted hug in the workplace.

Leaders must be aware of perceived breaches of appropriate conduct, all while maintaining an environment of trust and levity. Set expectations for company documentation, hiring, onboarding, and meetings. Maintain clear and dedicated channels where employees can talk about concerning behavior, and make sure everyone knows that inappropriate actions don’t belong at your company. Once these zero tolerance boundaries are in place, you can focus on helping employees form meaningful working relationships with one another.

In “The Art of People,” author Dave Kerpen suggests forgoing the golden rule — to treat people as you want to be treated — and instead treating others as they want to be treated. Every working team is different, and there’s no consensus on what behaviors and rules will be right for them. That’s why it’s imperative to focus on building great relationships at work. Where honest communication flourishes and discussions (or even arguments) can be beneficial, everyone is able to create a healthier, happier workspace.

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