How to Create Healthy Communication Boundaries with Clients

By Bobby Gill on September 27, 2019

One of the most important dynamics – and sometimes strangest – components of a business relationship is communication. Of course, this is important for everyone in your life but there’s certain tact required for business communication etiquette that differs from other interpersonal relationships.

There are certain norms we follow in our face-to-face interactions such as maintaining an appropriate distance from someone so you don’t invade someone’s “bubble” to the point they can smell what you ate for lunch. Because remote working is so commonplace, this has evolved how to set boundaries at because of the dynamics and challenges of these dispersed work models. 

At Blue Label Labs, we’re a digital product agency which means our goal is to delight our clients at every turn. However, we’ve often struggled with balancing the needs of our clients while maintaining the sanity and happiness of our product teams. It’s not easy to find the right balance and while we are a long way from being perfect, we have found some ways to establish communication protocols that don’t piss off our clients while allowing our teams to keep their sanity.

The rewards and challenges of working with remote teams

Our working model is a construct of different talents from around the world who collaborate remotely to make great software. It’s funny to think back when modern VoIP tools like Skype became viable for bridging people around the world for business, they would allow teams to work 24/7 for nonstop business. 

While they have, there’s a bit of “fine print” to this model that needs to be magnified to make these working models more viable.

Remote workers scattered around the world need to make certain adjustments to their working hours but they can’t be expected to be available at all hours, all the time. Just because remote individuals have the capacity to be available at any of your working hours or to work around your precise schedule doesn’t mean they should be.

In other high-demand or fast-paced industries, this causes serious problems for staff. For example, those who serve as EMS personnel often sustain serious fatigue overtime from the long hours and rigors of the job. In manufacturing settings, such as the RV industry, extreme production requirements often result in cultures of prominent drug use because workers are expected to keep pace.

Those of us working for digital product agencies aren’t driving ambulances and saving lives or sweating through building motor coaches but we too are subject to high-pressure projects.

We don’t want our developers, product managers, designers and others self-medicating to the point of dysfunction or crashing their vehicle because they’re overly stressed!

Building healthy communication standards and work boundaries

There’s a great neologism that’s surfaced in the last couple of years rooted in what’s called the “Spoon Theory” coined by Christine Miserandino from an essay dating back to 2003. She retells the time she grabbed spoons from her table to use as a metaphor to explain to a friend her capacity to handle tasks on a given day. When she runs out of spoons, she feels overwhelmed and burnout.

You only have so many spoons and each time someone is exposed to a stressor they “lose a spoon.” We all have a different number of spoons and most importantly, we need to mindful of the fact our actions can cause someone to lose a spoon and push them one step close to feeling overwhelmed.

As such, this is how we feel it’s best to stay healthy and help prevent yourself and others from losing their spoons!

Codify your capabilities in your statement of work (SOW). Make sure that you’re clear on your hours of operation, pricing and response times for your clients. It’s a lot like if you wanted to go to Whole Foods for some avocados at midnight when they close at 10 PM and try to see if the manager will let you use last week’s sale price. Outside of breaking an entry, it’s not going to happen. Your SOW is like the hours of operation posted on the front door and the pricing tags on the shelves. Be transparent so clients don’t flip shit because they’re unclear on your response times.

Alter your availability to make reasonable accommodations. In some cases, your business operation times will need to be modified to accommodate time-zone differences with remote teams and client availability. Some entrepreneurs that hire your firm will be working on other projects during the day and will need to jam with you outside regular hours. The problem we sometimes find is it takes a couple of weeks after starting a project to fine-tune scheduling. Be as flexible as possible while minding everyone’s possible availability.

“Don’t engage the target, captain!” If you’re using tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams with your clients and workers, don’t feel obligated to respond to non-urgent matters outside of your regular working hours, even if a presence awareness mechanism shows you as available. The problem this can cause is breaking down or devalue the expectations you’ve established. Stick to your guns on this matter to keep yourself at a proper distance to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Too, make sure to get enough rest and drink plenty of water!

Create multiple lines of communication. Being contacted at hours you’re not (or don’t want to be) available can be circumvented by integrating clients into more communications channels. Using workflow tools like Asana and other project management tools is kind of like creating a self-checkout at a store. Rather than ping you at odd hours to ask questions, keeping these tools updated with current information allows clients to check the status and stay informed. Think of it as like an FAQ page on a website but it’s specific to their project.

Turn off your notifications sometimes. It’s great that we can stay constantly connected with work apps and social media however, there is a price to be paid. Some find themselves obsessed with social media and other technology which is a kind of addiction – your brain releases dopamine when you engage as Simon Sinek points out in this video around the 3:20 mark. At some point, you need to disconnect from your technology as notifications will inevitably stress you out. Avoid work platforms (and yes, Facebook) when spending time with the family, in yoga class, or walking your dog in the park. I find the buzz created by Slack to be too distracting so I turn these notifications off but always leave Skype active which I keep on for urgent matters.

On a final note, the worst possible mode of communication and the one we’ve found has the greatest negative effect is SMS messaging. Establish enough communication channels so SMS becomes the absolute last possible means of communication and is reserved for the most emergent of situations.

Blue Label Labs can build your business app

Navigating communication boundaries with clients and remote teams can be tricky. However, by establishing your availability to communicate and respond, projects run smoother and it creates less stress. 

We recognize that the happiest clients are served by teams who are physically and mentally healthy. By setting boundaries and establishing multiple communication channels, we create a better environment for everyone. Get in touch with us at Blue Label Labs to learn how we can help you design and build your dream software!