The Pandemic’s Lessons on the Value of Boundaries

The pandemic taught us that, as much as we are stimulated by in-person interactions, we need a balance that includes boundaries—both physical and in the number and kind of interactions we have with colleagues and those we live with.

The months of lockdown during the pandemic were unpleasant even to an introvert like myself. And I still struggle with the monotony of a morning commute that now requires just five steps from the foot of the bed in my small New York City apartment to my desk. You can’t beat the convenience! But it’s really, really boring.

However, as boring, monotonous, and tedious as I have found the pandemic, there are lessons that could lead to a better work environment. Could boundaries, whether between people in an office, or in the number and form of meetings (virtual or otherwise), be a good thing?

The open-plan layout has been the go-to office environment for a while. The pandemic showed that maybe having small borders around workstations (i.e., the old cubicles with three walls per desk) may not be a bad thing. Germs have to work harder when there is a wall between you and the people sitting next to and across from you.

How frequently do we need to have meetings? And do those meetings need to be face-to-face, or will an audio-only phone call suffice? When we locked down, video meetings became the standard, and seemed to multiply in number. Was this necessary and desirable? Or disruptive and intrusive, giving colleagues views into one another’s private homes? I never had to worry in the past about whether I had put all my laundry away or what kinds of magnets were on my refrigerator before a meeting. And the meetings we had pre-pandemic were less frequent and more selective. The things that now warrant meetings were addressed over e-mail or with a five-minute phone call in the past. Many found a catharsis for their physical isolation in an abundance of video meetings, which not all of us have enjoyed.

When, and if, we return to a pre-pandemic routine, I propose the construction of three borders around every desk, which could be used for both privacy and as a way of slowing the transmission of germs. Those three walls also could aid noise control. Pre-pandemic, many people in open-plan layouts struggled with that colleague who felt the need to speak at the top of their lungs during phone calls and when speaking with co-workers. Those of us who work out of apartments may struggle with the loud-voiced neighbor, who seems to hope you overhear their conversations. People living in houses with families were challenged for the space and peace to work comfortably, and many found themselves becoming irritable with those they live with.

The pandemic taught us that, as much as we are stimulated by in-person interactions, we need a balance that includes boundaries—both physical and in the number and kind of interactions we have with colleagues and those we live with. The dynamics of interactions with others changed in a way that gives us a chance to reassess how we want our post-pandemic work life to look and feel.

An article in Forbes by Mike Kappel offers suggestions for building strong post-pandemic relationships. One tip is to “over-communicate.” This tip makes me think of how easily misunderstandings occur now. When you aren’t seeing people in-person, it’s easier to get confused about what others want from you. Simple requests get mixed up without the ability to stop by a person’s desk and double-check that you fully understood, or to ask the person to come by your workstation to go over what you’re seeing on your computer screen. The need for frequent sharing and clarification makes me think we have gotten a chance to learn during the pandemic how differently we communicate from our peers. In some cases, given personality differences, two English-speaking people may seem to be speaking two entirely different languages.

To make sure you and colleagues are hearing and understanding each other, Kappel suggests “active listening” in which you give verbal and visual cues to show you have understood one another.

He also says we should “build strong work teams.” For me, this goes back to my original point about boundaries. Just as family members forced to spend huge amounts of time together found themselves becoming irritable, work teams forced to constantly communicate via video meetings to compensate for the abnormal physical distance may become irritable. Similarly, if you are used to a private space in which to work, why would you be comfortable returning to an open-plan layout with no barriers at all between yourself and others?

If the day ever arrives that we resume what we used to think of as “normal” in an in-person work environment, it would be helpful to remember we can work together, in person, with easy access to one another, without necessarily constantly interacting. It’s freedom and flexibility for that balance—without having to feel you are over-compensating for an abnormal situation—that could make a return to pre-pandemic work life happy. Back to normal may mean forgetting our compulsive video meetings and check-ins and finally relaxing.

What is your company envisioning as post-pandemic work life? Could the open-plan layout be tweaked to allow for greater privacy and slower germ transmission? Could the number of meetings be cut back if we once again can begin casually dropping by a colleague’s desk for clarification and a friendly hello?