Looking back over 2019 and the issues readers have entrusted me with, I realize most of them revolve around one concept: boundaries. How to set them, how to respect them, how to enforce them.

Readers sought advice on protecting physical-space boundaries tested by colleagues who are smelly, flirty or simply too affectionate. With open-space floor plans eliminating literal barriers at work, it’s no wonder telecommuting is such an in-demand perk.

On a more abstract level, readers struggled to set boundaries to protect their mental space against demanding colleagues, clients and workloads. Occasionally, readers needed help finding ways to keep personal issues from intruding on professional mental space. Sometimes that means enforcing hierarchical boundaries, even if it goes against human impulses.

On the clock, readers had to defend their time against meandering meetings and needy networkers. Off the clock, moms and dads protected the perimeters around their families. Leisure time for everyone is increasingly fleeting and fragmented, especially in service industry and freelance jobs, with technology constantly poking holes in the boundary.

Workers in marginalized demographics fought to overcome the of bias and draw their own lines on unacceptable behavior from colleagues and clients, from idea theft to disparaging comments and other forms of disrespect.

Compensation questions highlighted the constant negotiation over the boundary between the skills and effort an employer can demand and the wages and benefits employees can demand in exchange.

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While laws and policies set some boundaries for workers, the rest is up to us and our economic needs, life situations, ambitions, health and personality. Here’s hoping the new year brings the stability and resources each of us needs to establish healthy boundaries that will allow us to be more open and compassionate toward each other.

Let’s tie things up with reader updates on how workers are enforcing — or softening — their own boundaries:

—From the nonprofit manager facing off against a prickly volunteer: “The good news is that we seem to have figured out how to shift from an adversarial relationship to one that is more collaborative. I think we both did some ego shifting. For now, it’s a good working situation.”

—From the letter writer asking about a server who hadn’t had Christmas off in 12 years: “In the end, my son’s girlfriend managed to get the time off, but her supervisor made it clear that she’d better not make any similar requests in the foreseeable future. The good news: this ordeal has motivated her to work on getting her real estate license.”

—From a reader commenting on the column about the worker fired for contacting a customer on LinkedIn: “I use an app that has a social component showing other users’ names and photos. I’ve been considering starting a project involving interviews with other users of this app whose email I can figure out based on their profiles. To me, it feels completely innocuous and might lead to an outcome that could be interesting and positive for all concerned. And yet. … Your column made me realize that ‘might’ and ‘could’ and ‘to me’ isn’t good enough, and that technology is changing these unwritten rules quickly. Just because I can contact someone with an ‘out of band’ communication doesn’t mean I should. I think your ‘four gates’ model is really useful, and I intend to adopt it.”

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)