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How to Communicate Boundaries with Transparency in Freelance Work

Have you ever wondered about the importance of boundaries? In sports, the boundaries define the areas within play and outside of it, as well as where certain players are allowed to play or where a ball (object) must go to earn points, runs, goals, etc. These boundaries are transparent and made clear to everyone involved in the game—player, referee/umpire, fan. 

One of the five key values of Trusty Oak is “Communicate with Transparency.” According to the About Us page, “We value frequent, clear, and open communication.” This means that each of the entrepreneurs and freelancers within Trusty Oak has this value and is tasked with defining and communicating the boundaries within their business with transparency just like in sports.

Why Boundaries Are So Important: A Short Anecdote

I began my virtual assistant business when my daughter was just 4 months old. This meant that I was often awake overnight nursing and I was always using my phone in order to stay awake. Sudoku and Bejeweled-type games were my go-to, but I usually also checked my notifications. Although no one ever complained about their notifications (do not disturb exists for a reason!), I learned the hard way that I needed to be careful about who I responded to in those overnight hours.

I have never had a client (or friend, or family member) complain that I responded overnight, but I did have one (non-Trusty Oak) client that began to take advantage of my nighttime responses. Apparently, he was someone who would wake up overnight and work. After I responded once overnight, and we had a conversation in which I looked up some information or sent an email on his behalf, he began to message me overnight regularly to request that I do work. Now, imagine the scene: it’s 3 am and I’m nursing my infant daughter in one arm, and attempting to do work one-handed on my phone, and I’m sitting in the dark just waiting for her to finish so that I can sleep. Now, I also feel like I need to complete the task that my client assigned before sleeping, so even though my daughter has finished nursing, I am continuing to work in a dark room when she should be in her crib, and I should be in my bed asleep until her next nursing session.

Does this sound ideal? No. Should I blame my client for expecting me to work in the middle of the night? Absolutely… not. As a freelancer, I am responsible for creating my own boundaries, as well as communicating and enforcing them with transparency. I gave my client the impression that texting me in the middle of the night and expecting me to complete the work was okay. Then when he did so, I perpetuated that impression by following through and continuing to work for him. Thankfully this situation only lasted a week before I nipped it in the bud and communicated that I would no longer be available overnight, and I reinforced the boundary by only responding to his messages during “business hours.”

Examples of Boundaries

Within Trusty Oak, some of the communication best practices around boundaries that we follow include starting our engagements with clients with a kick-off call to discuss expectations, communication strategies, and boundaries. We also ensure we respond to client emails within 24 hours during the business week. Although Trusty Oak is based in Texas, our virtual assistants live throughout the United States. This means that we may live in a different time zone than our client, and therefore have different working hours. Naturally, this will necessitate the establishment of boundaries around working hours.

For example, my working hours are generally 9-5 pm EST/ET, but I acknowledge that my two young children are often distractions when I could be working, and I tend to run errands on weekdays when my workload permits. I’ve been completely transparent about this, so my clients are aware that I will often work in the evenings or on the weekends to complete tasks and assignments. An important boundary for me is that my clients know that working during those times is my choice. If there is something that they’d like done at the last minute that would force me to work outside of general business hours, they may ask me if I can do it, but they understand that I may decline.

There could be times when a freelancer is requested to do something that wouldn’t be appropriate based on their personal beliefs and values, or even based on their other clients—potentially a conflict of interest. We are able to decline as freelancers, but it’s important to be transparent. Transparency shows your clients that you respect them and that you wish to help them succeed, but the task should be done by someone else—and that’s okay!

How to Establish Communication Boundaries

Some of the most important boundaries to establish revolve around communication methods. In this day and age, we can call, text, email, Voxer, send a Facebook Message, send a Google Chat message, send a message on LinkedIn, get on a Zoom or Teams meeting, use Facetime, Marco Polo, Slack, or WhatsApp. Sadly, I have used ALL of these methods in communicating with clients, along with being assigned tasks in Trello, ClickUp, Asana, and Notion. That’s seventeen different methods that clients have used to contact me over the past 4.5 years that I’ve been a virtual assistant. Here are some steps I’ve learned and use for establishing boundaries:

  1. Choose a preferred method of communication. What works best for one client might not work for another, so verify which method will work best for each.
  2. Choose a secondary method in case you or your client have something urgent to communicate.
  3. Establish times for checking each method of communication, availability, and response time.
    1. Note: response time indicates how long until you confirm receipt of the message. It does not indicate the accomplishment of a task contained within the message.
    2. Second note: some apps will not keep messages long-term. If you use an unpaid Voxer account, the messages are deleted after 30 days. Slack deletes everything after 90 days. Other methods may have different retention periods for messages.
  4. Be transparent: record the communication boundaries and share them with your client.
  5. Be consistent: do your best to only check those communication methods during the established times.
    1. Recommendation: if you use an iPhone, turn off the read receipts on your text messages so you can control when you’ve indicated receipt of them. I might check my phone after changing a diaper at 4 am, but that doesn’t mean I’m open for business as a virtual assistant.
  6. If you want to save your sanity, only offer additional methods of communication if absolutely necessary, and reduce the number of methods to as few as possible.
    1. For example, I needed to get authentication information from a client in Hong Kong. I temporarily used WhatsApp to more easily contact her in real-time, but that was only for that one task. The same client needed to share videos with me that she only had in Marco Polo at one point. I agreed to use the app for that one task. In both instances, I made sure she was aware and deleted the app after the task.
  7. Use your own project management tool (I use two: ClickUp and a paper planner)  to remind you to check each communication method as established with your client.
    1. My ClickUp literally has a repeating task to check a client’s Notion account. It also has tasks to check client email addresses, send weekly reports, and set up calls as needed.

Although technology has made it easy, and often expected, for an entrepreneur to be reached at every waking hour of the day, along with those non-waking hours, you do not need to embody that expectation! It is up to you to establish boundaries and enforce them. You do not need to respond to messages overnight (I’m talking to myself here…), and you are allowed, and encouraged, to take time off regularly. Think of your business as a retail store. When you switch the sign to closed, you turn off the lights and don’t allow customers to come inside. They aren’t allowed to sneak into a window or a back door and receive service. Your transparent boundaries will allow for a better working relationship with your clients, and a lot less burnout for you!

Want to learn more about the rockstar human virtual assistants, like Kristen, we have in our Trusty Oak Treehouse?

Check out our team below!

Kristen Rattanamongkhoune

Kristen has a natural aptitude for proofreading and has an inability to read without keying in on grammatical and spelling errors. She’s edited four books for publication and many blogs, emails, and social media posts for clients. She is trained in Pinterest strategy and management, enjoys content repurposing for social media, helping with website updates and design, and taking care of the small details. [more about Kristen]

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