An Engineering Manager's Guide to Boundary Issues

Jobs, like gardens, often require pruning to prevent them from unhealthily creeping into life spaces where they don’t belong. That very much includes our home lives.

An Engineering Manager's Guide to Boundary Issues
Surrey, British Columbia SkyTrain Bridge. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.
This is the forth article in my series on how to maintain work-life balance as a software engineering manager. I'd recommend reading the series introduction as well as the previous article Pivoting Out of Work-mode for Real before digging in.

This blackberry plant trying to grow right in front of a house is a good metaphor for boundary issues in employment:

I like blackberry patches. They can be prickly and challenging, but they provide a satisfying reward for the effort put in, in the form of those tasty antioxidant berries.

Even so, if blackberries start literally running their thorny canes inside my house, it’s going to cause problems. Their space and mine are separate for a reason, and the situation gets painfully out of whack if that boundary gets crossed.

It's the same way with jobs.

Beware the creeping job

Jobs, like gardens, often require pruning to prevent them from unhealthily creeping into life spaces where they don’t belong. That very much includes our home lives.

Instant messaging technology comes with the downside of making it easier than ever before for work-related stressors to become invasive. Video calls enable meetings to happen anywhere and anytime, with both the good and bad that can entail. Phones can pop up email reminders about work-related topics (even while the off-duty engineer should ostensibly be pivoted out of that headspace). Guilt-trippingly urgent messages can be sent to employees in a snap - asking that they shuffle work days at the last minute, or informing them that they should plan for some very long work hours as the upcoming project deadline approaches. The anxious employee can get stuck doomscrolling their work emails, or reading something inopportune right before bed and then being unable to sleep because of worries.

Granted, sometimes a little encroachment will happen. It’s a hazard of being employed, and real emergencies do come up. If that’s seen for what it is and dealt with, it can be tamed. Unawareness and inaction, however, are dangerous.

Like anything else, the more we passively let a job violate boundaries into our off time, the more our brains normalize it. You can get used to almost anything, even a blackberry growing in front of your house, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a drain on your patience. You can’t stay pivoted out of work mode when work keeps intruding.

With all of that in mind, it’s our responsibility to be vigilant and ready to prune.

Golden Ears Provincial Park, British Columbia. Photo © 2023 Robin Monks

Keeping expectations real

Every now and then, it’s prudent to reflect on the work-life balance of your current position and determine whether or not it is sustainable. This is true for any position but is doubly true for management, since you can end up disrupting not only yourself but also your team members if you keep pushing against their boundaries in your quest to get them to achieve more.

Periodically, give your job a performance review, with you as the boss and the job as the employee being reviewed. Be methodical. Look realistically at the last stretch of your work and make note of times when your job unduly infringed on your personal life. Ask yourself honestly whether that is likely to happen again, and then ask the same questions on behalf of your team members.

If your reflection leaves you with concerns, check in with your team members to gauge how their workload is affecting them. Be prepared for some to give rosier opinions than they should, especially if you know they have been burned by managers over productivity before. Often their tone will say more than their words.

Hard lessons

Workplace efficiency is an equation with diminishing returns, and the fact that overwork doesn’t work cannot be bypassed by sneakily converting someone’s home time into work time.

If you or some of your team members are frequently breaking away from home life to deal with problems from your job, something bigger is wrong than the surface issues being handled. If you know your engineers understood their assignments and were working hard, but they’re nowhere near done when crunch time comes, then it’s likely that the project’s allotted time was genuinely too little for the scope of work that was imposed. If you’ve needed temp help for a role your team has been missing for more than a year, it’s time to admit that position needs a lasting solution (and communicate to any relevant higher-ups to try to get one). Ditto that if your team needs a proper on-call position and doesn’t have one.

Sometimes, a project can’t realistically move faster. If you’ve onboarded as many people as makes sense for the tasks at hand, you’re using a workflow that makes sense, and you’re all taking regular breaks and pivoting into and out of work mode to keep burnout low… then there’s a high chance that your team is already accomplishing as much as they can. Adding more workload would cause more harm than good, encouraging those involved to cut corners and produce worse outcomes.

In such a situation, it’s time to suck it up and tone back the expectations. That can be a sobering reality for management to acknowledge, and your higher-ups may not like it, but it’s reality. No more scope creep. No more feature creep. No more hours creep. The blackberries have to stop somewhere.

Devil's Paintbrush (Pilosella aurantiaca) Blooms in Marco. Photo © 2023 Robin Monks

Pruning it down

Ultimately, you can’t control how your bosses respond to such matters, but you can always advocate for what is reasonable, as well as staying mindful of yourself as you manage your team. The latter can go a long way toward making your team’s difficult times more bearable.

As you manage, check yourself for encroaching behaviors and excessive checking-up, while making sure you haven’t forgotten to check in altogether with quieter team members. Neither neglect nor a stranglehold is the way: give people room to be awesome, while keeping a floor of managerial support under them for grounding. Inasmuch as it depends on you, let their off time be their off time, but be mentally present as their manager when the work hours are on.

Do reach out to your higher-ups about issues you’ve noticed, especially when accommodating said issues comes down to a reality check about how hard a team can work. If you find others in the management structure who understand that engineers need space to breathe, cultivate a rapport with them so that you can bring more voices to the discussion. Even relatively unreasonable bosses may wake up when they notice that it isn’t “just the one team leader” complaining.

With that said, if your higher-ups are truly unreceptive, you still have the ultimate boundary-setting option at your disposal.

Remember: there are other jobs

Choice, and the willingness to exercise it, is a powerful thing. It’s also a critical part of maintaining work-life balance. Sometimes, this can mean choosing to fire your employer. (Or, to go back to our plant metaphor, having a landscaper uproot the briars altogether.)

Even among managers, many people stay in jobs with less pay and heavier responsibilities than they could get if they were to shop around. Remember that you are your first and most critical resource and that it isn’t okay for an employer to destroy that.

If you haven’t updated your resume in a while and are embroiled in trying to reason with difficult bosses, it’s wise to go ahead and work on it and perhaps send out some first contacts to prospective new positions. Respect is earned, and a job that won’t stay within its designated life-space is not worthy of being treated as some unique and irreplaceable thing. Get the contact information for your best possible references, make sure you aren’t violating any non-compete agreements by seeking new work of this type, and be ready for the possibility that you may be facing the next stage of your life’s adventure under a different employer.

Next time, we’ll take a step back and look at the anatomy of the work week, with a focus on how it can be done better and more humanely. There are ways as manager we can make work better.