One of the things you love about academic work is the flexibility and the autonomy. You don’t have to be in the office at 9 a.m. every morning. You don’t even have to be in the office every day. In theory you could take Wednesday off to go for a nice long hike and then work on Saturday instead.
When was the last time you did that though? (I mean the “take Wednesday off” part, not the work on Saturday part.)
Although you think that the rigid structure of a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday workweek would be an unwelcome constriction, a complete lack of structure often doesn’t feel great either. In your more cynical moments you think “flexibility” just means the flexibility to work all the time.
Setting boundaries is hard
In a situation where the boundaries are set by policy, everyone can make assumptions about when colleagues are available for meetings, when they will do tasks assigned, and so on. In an academic environment, you and your colleagues will have different boundaries. This will require you to articulate your boundaries and to negotiate. Although you will become more knowledgeable about each other’s boundaries, there will never come a time when you don’t have to articulate your boundaries and negotiate.
You do not need to do this defensively. Assume that colleagues, including your head of department, dean, and others with authority, will support boundary setting. You are merely informing them and opening a negotiation about when you can meet, when something can be completed, or whatever.
Not all of your colleagues share your working conditions. Administrative staff and staff in support units like the research office, finance office, and so on have much less flexibility and autonomy. If they have flexible work hours (and they may not), they are likely to be flexible only within certain imposed limits. This may create tensions and their envy and resentment of your flexibility and autonomy may come across as unwarranted criticism. You do not need to be defensive. You do need to be considerate of their very different working conditions.
The upshot of all of this is that you need to be confident about your boundaries. You will need to articulate them pretty frequently and you need to be able to do that in a way that is calm and confident. Not defensive. Not arrogant. That’s really tough.
Be the change you want to see
One of the things that makes setting boundaries hard is the invisibility of other people’s boundaries. You cannot impose boundaries on other people but you can model what having boundaries looks like and contribute to a culture where boundaries are normal, even if everyone’s boundaries are different because you are all flexible and autonomous.
If you would like colleagues to respect your writing and research time when they negotiate available meeting times, openly respect theirs. It won’t always be possible to find a mutually agreeable time that doesn’t require rearranging something but you can at least try. Ask when their research day is so you can suggest times on other days. Or ask which days they normally come into the office. Ask what time they are normally in the office.
Respect the asynchronous nature of email. Do not expect colleagues to drop what they are doing to reply to an email. If you need a quick reply pick up the phone or walk down the corridor and knock on their door. If the thought of doing that makes you realize that your request is not that urgent, but you do need a response within a reasonable time frame, indicate when you need a response in the email, preferably in the first line. Then get on with other things and don’t nudge them until the date you set.
Do not participate in the culture of no-boundaries. Do not say or affirm statements like “academics don’t get weekends” or “how do you find time to go for lunch”, etc. Also be aware of jokey comments that make it seem like those who are not in the office are not working.
Assume that weekends and evenings are out of bounds for meetings and other work involving others unless someone has expressly told you that they like to work at those times or are available at those times. Make a similar assumption about email and other communication about work. You can decide to work whenever you like but try not to assume that others are working non-standard hours.
This post was edited August 6, 2015.