have I destroyed boundaries with my team during Covid? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’ve been a manager for four years, all at the same location and mostly with the same reports (three people). I’m a pretty private person and didn’t love a previous job that tried to force out-of-work friendships on staff. As a manager I’ve always been a friendly-but-not-friends type, they’re lovely people and I have a general idea of what’s going on with my reports from chat on breaks/check-in during supervision; I’ve never socialized with them except for out of office team-building on company time and shared meals during conference travel.

And then COVID. We are all pretty conscientious people in a state full of anti-maskers and never went remote so have been working in the office this whole time. None of us are really seeing anyone outside of close family and each other. I feel like I’ve increasingly drifted in the friends-with-reports direction during this time with one person in particular, and somewhat with another. The third is super reserved and isn’t really friendly with anyone. By that, I mean 10-15 minute check-in chats daily, occasional half-hour office hangouts during downtimes, sharing family photos and videos, recipe and cocktail recommendations, etc. We are all similar age and single. It’s honestly helped keep me sane, and during our annual reviews last week they each mentioned something about their good work environment and relationships helping them get through COVID.

But … we are all currently or soon to be vaccinated, so I’m beginning to think about what to do after/if things do go back to normal. I don’t want them to think I don’t like them anymore if I cut down the personal conversations, but I also don’t want to have inappropriate personal relationships or make any new staff who come on board feel excluded. Any thoughts?

Having 15-minute chats, occasionally socializing for half an hour during downtime, and sharing photos, recipes, and cocktail recommendations — that doesn’t seem like a crossing of boundaries to me! Those are all things managers with appropriate boundaries can do with their teams. You’re being warm and friendly and developing deeper connections with the people you work with. That’s fine!

Inappropriate would be things like wanting your employees to listen to or help you solve serious non-work problems in your life, having weepy conversations about your family or love life, badmouthing your own boss, or expecting them to prioritize chatting with you over their own work or outside interests (or them expecting any of this from you). It would also be things like getting drunk together or hanging out regularly outside of work. But trading recipes and photos — totally normal and not a sign of problematically relaxed boundaries!

So I don’t know that you need to worry particularly. A warm, friendly environment isn’t inherently problematic. You do need to be careful that the third person doesn’t feel excluded; you should always attempt to include her even if you know she’ll likely decline, and make sure the others don’t have special access to you that she doesn’t have. You should also make a point of watching how often you initiate these conversations versus how often the others do; the power dynamics mean they may feel obligated to engage with you on demand, so you’d want to watch out for that.

But a team that gets along well and enjoys talking to each other isn’t the same as a team that’s obliterated professional boundaries. (If I am misunderstanding and there’s more to it than the specifics you named in your letter, please write back so I can course-correct!)

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