October 17, 2023

It’s okay to say no: boundaries for IT professionals

8 min read

In many workplaces around New Zealand, being amenable, and having a ‘can do’, getting-on with-the-job attitude is the default operating mode. The typical Kiwi workplace culture makes hearing (or giving) a ‘no’ to a work-related request something of an awkward experience. This is further exacerbated by the fact that as a nation, we generally don’t love confrontation. Most of us would prefer to find a peaceful solution to any challenge.

Unfortunately, the average person working within this operating mode can quite easily slip into undue stress and pressure, scrambling to do everything, and please everyone in the process.

And that’s not sustainable, no matter who you are.

As an industry, we need to empower IT professionals to set boundaries around their workload and embrace the power of saying ‘no’ to requests and queries that may push them beyond these boundaries. Because if this doesn’t happen, Aotearoa’s great IT talent may lose motivation, burn out, or even leave the industry.

It’s a job for everyone to support and facilitate. People leaders and managers have a big part to play, as well as individual IT professional themselves. In this article we discuss four steps for you as a tech professional to work through, in order to set healthy boundaries, manage stress, and ultimately have a positive working experience.


1. Don’t let your health tools slide

Are you going through a stressful, high-demand patch at work? We know that such is the nature of many IT projects, particularly when you get to the pointy end of delivery. You may notice that it’s beginning to feel like life feel like life consists almost entirely of work and nothing else. Perhaps you’re sacrificing sleep, exercise and diet along the way —not to mention any hobbies that normally fill your cup.

While it can be the Kiwi norm to drop everything to get that project done, your wellbeing rituals are critical to keep in place, no matter how seemingly taxing the workload is. The IT professional with a decent work-life balance brings with them a well-rested body, sharp mind, balanced perspective, and positive attitude into the workplace—all if which are essential when dealing with challenging workloads and critical projects.  Remove all that self-care, and suddenly your mood and wellbeing are at the mercy of whatever’s happening inside the organisation that day.

There’s no way around it; your health and wellbeing must be a priority. If you’ve been putting off the doctor’s visit, book it now. If you’re neglected your weekend bushwalk, start packing the day pack. If surfing is your zen and the way you reset, stop reading this and get down to the beach ASAP!


2. Stick to your set work hours

Having work-life balance and positive personal wellbeing sounds great, right? But we can hear some of you saying – how!? With the expectations placed on me in work, how do I carve that time back out of my day?

This is where boundary and expectation-setting come in. We acknowledge that this might feel like a big hurdle if you’ve not practised this before, but we promise, it gets easier every time you do it, and will greatly improve your work life.

Review the hours you’re contracted to work. Check your employment agreement or contract, find the number and now compare it to what you’ve been time sheeting, over the past few weeks. Are you regularly working beyond the contracted number? It’s time to have a conversation with your manager.

It may feel awkward, but keep in mind that most managers want the best for their people, and ultimately, need to know when there’s big gap between the hours you were engaged to work, and what you are delivering.

Top tip: We strongly recommend honesty as the rule. If you’ve been working an extra 20 hours a week than agreed, then be up front about it. You’re not obliged to go into detail around the impact it’s having on you, but you should feel able to if you want. One thing we can all get better at is ‘managing up’; making your problem a shared one with a manager whose job it is to help you with such challenges. Don’t own the problem entirely, nor feel guilty for asking for help with a resolution.


3. Delegate where needed

Having a ‘can do’ attitude 100% of the time can get you into strife. It could be that you feel the job will be done the way you think it should, by doing it all yourself, or that by involving others, you’re going to negatively impose on someone else’s workload. It’s not unusual to feel this way.

Achieving work goals, while also preventing your stress levels from getting unmanageable will likely require an element of delegation. Delegation is a fundamental part of organisational efficiency that we believe IT professionals should embrace, and even if you’re not in a management position, it doesn’t mean that you have no recourse for delegation. It may mean that with the help of your manager, some of your workload gets shared amongst those with less on their plate.

No one expects teams to get resource planning perfectly every time, so redistribution of tasks is a practice that all teams should get comfortable with.

Top tip: Here are some excellent reasons to consider delegation:

  • You don’t have the best skillset to complete a task to the level it needs to be.
  • Others can do the task faster.
  • Doing this task or work will distract you from other tasks that are your responsibility (your core work, you add more value doing it).
  • There are too many hours of work needed to be completed, and not enough people to do it.
  • By delegating, you are empowering and training others to do new things (this works best for tasks that may not be as time sensitive or critical).
  • The act of positive delegation and resource planning can bring the team together.
  • Some people in your team are being underutilised (e.g., not filling the work day), while others are finding it difficult to get their tasks done in a typical work day.

4. Learn the art of saying ‘no’

The final step in this process is to embrace saying ‘No’.  We understand that while it’s simple and short to say, it remains one of the most intimidating words in business to use!

Remind yourself that declining an unrealistic request, deadline or commitment will not cause the organisation or project to fall over. Instead think of it this way: an IT professional declining a task that’s outside capability or capacity, will in fact, help the business. Operationally, it may prevent larger problems arising later, when a team member leaves, work quality suffers, or people are loaded up with too many tasks and deadlines are missed anyway. It’s much better to hear a ‘no’ in response to a request than to have to deal with the negative repercussions that may result from the scramble to meet unrealistic project timelines. Businesses depend on ‘no’.

Therefore, if you find yourself in this situation, where you’ve got a clear view on why a request or expectation is simply not possible, stand by it. It may feel uncomfortable—but use that powerful ‘no’. (Of course, at the same time be willing to adapt if a manager or the business provides new resources that will turn your response into a yes).

Top tip: Here are some classic workplace moments to practise your ‘no’ with:

  • Can I get this back by the end of today?
  • Can you work on this over the weekend?
  • Can you take on X’s workload until we find a replacement?
  • Can we just get this feature in, I know it’s not in scope but…
  • I don’t care what it takes, this needs to be done by [unrealistic time frame]
  • Are you able to manage this on your own?
  • Can you help me configure something on my personal computer?
  • Can you still deliver this work even without [Technology/software] being available?

Every time you get a request, you’ll really want to weigh it up to make sure it’s something you have the time and ability to do. Maybe your response isn’t ‘no’, but a counter request, such as “sure, if [X] moves my other deliverable dates out to make room for this”. This forces the request to go through proper channels and then perhaps it is a reasonable activity to prioritise – but other activities will need to be deliberately pushed down the list as a result. And never be worried about saying “I’ll come back to you on this I need to consider if it’s possible” as it’s entirely reasonable to take time to take a decision.

Set those boundaries

With New Zealand’s ever-growing tech sector, we really need our IT professionals to be content, engaged and productive at work. Hopefully these four steps will help you to be able to set some personal boundaries in the workplace, so that you avoid excessive stress, the dreaded burnout, and be a happy part of this workforce.

Of course, we acknowledge that to be successful in this endeavour, employers need to play their part.  We’ll cover ideas for how tech managers, leaders and employers can support healthy boundaries and reduce workplace stress for their people, in an upcoming article.


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