Navigating Personal Space in Today’s Virtual Environment
Virtual personal space requires good boundaries — here’s how to set and respect them
I began my career at a mid-sized company where I sat in pod-like configurations with no cubicle walls. Our desks were a few feet apart from each other. While an open-plan office typically starves us of personal space, the only time I felt my personal space compromised there was when a colleague with less-than-stellar personal hygiene joined the team.
We can define personal space as the area individual humans actively maintain around themselves into which others cannot intrude without arousing discomfort.
Many of us now work in virtual spaces with remote team members, so it’s even less likely for us to feel encroached upon physically in day-to-day situations. But what about personal space in that virtual realm?
In my experience, virtual space requires the same kind of boundary-setting and respect for the boundaries of others that physical spaces require. Learning the skills to set and respect these boundaries among remote teams—or teams that combine remote and on-site work—is an essential part of good teamwork.
Personal Space Zones
The two closest personal space zones in the physical realm can be described this way:
- Zone 1: Intimate space where lovers or parents and infants operate. This very personal comfort zone, between consenting parties, is typically 45 centimetres (about a foot and a half), which is approximately the length of a bowling pin. This is obviously an arbitrary figure because culture and where we live can significantly change the distance of comfort.
- Zone 2: Personal space where close friends engage or important conversations are had. This distance varies, but the generally accepted distance is about one arm-length away. Cultural context creates quite a bit of variation—this distance varies widely.
Personal space distance
We have different acceptance space levels for close companions based on our social and cultural norms. Subjectively speaking, however, the length of a guitar—about 1 metre—is the nearest we expect acquaintances to be. For some of us, strangers might be okay within that range. For others, however, even familiar contacts should stay 1 — 3 metres away.
It’s not my intention to make personal space sound anti-social or negative. Scientifically speaking, knowing our personal space is valuable for everyday life. For example, an entire category of cells in our brain aid spatial recognition. That includes the ability to recognize the space around us to avoid smashing into walls or trees on our walks, to prevent harassment, and even to use hand-held tools or solve math problems!
Research confirms that when there is an invasion of our personal space, we get irritated. Just how much physical distance causes the irritation is unclear. Up to this point, only animals have been part of the studies. Study results showed animals in captivity have a much smaller range of space comfort than animals in the wild.
How much personal space do we need before we feel threatened? How far must others trespass into our “comfort zone” before it triggers anxiety?
In an organized roundtable years ago, I came into the room and picked a seat with no one on either side of me. Within 10 minutes, other colleagues joined. Finally, the CEO joined and the only seat available was the one to my right. He sat down, looked straight forward, and leaned toward me, his left shoulder to my right shoulder. I didn’t realize I had shifted left away from him until he turned his head to me and said, “Personal space issue?” The room chuckled while I pulled myself back up from a slanted pose.
Now, a conference room isn’t captivity. And his joke at my expense was poor manners (at best) on his part. But all of this is to say that physical personal space is a matter of context. The same is true of virtual personal space.
Here are some ways I maintain my private territory, in both physical and virtual contexts:
- Heading into an event with a group of people I have not yet met, I pick the seat nearest other empty seats.
- Waiting to cash out at the grocery store, I position the shopping cart ahead of me for separation.
- Joining a work meeting, I turn over my default silent mode phone to have the screen faced down.
- Putting on a Netflix movie, I place my phone on Do Not Disturb mode.
Personal Space Contexts in the Virtual World Are Evolving Rapidly
2004: My first smartphone was the Palm Treo 300. I loved it. I added my work email account to it with no care that it used my personal data plan. I valued the convenience to see the latest news, work and personal messages at any time. Back then, I wasn’t worried about anyone contacting me to the point of annoyance. That was in 2004.
2019: It is a much different place, and space, in 2019. The digital place we live in now has altered how we think about personal space. In today’s work world, email replaced post mail. Text messages replaced phone calls and voicemail. Annoyances and intrusions are much more common.
I generally love that text messages are easy to create and delivered instantly. The problem is, I often forget a message I send at 7 p.m. from British Columbia to my best friend in Halifax is 11 p.m. for her. I’ve intruded on her bedtime. Talk about invading your (very) personal space — how rude?!
Early research of societal conventions in virtual space showed we can be uncomfortable even when we are hidden behind computer screens. In the experiment, virtual representations of characters interacted with each other online. The study showed the individuals controlling their online characters acted like they would in the physical world. These virtual persons maintained a virtual bubble or backed away when an online character they didn’t know came too close.
Many of us are new to digital space management on a human-to-human level. It can also take a toll on our relationships. In some cases, virtual and physical space intersects, making the situation even more complex.
Personally speaking, my live-in partner and I have learned to respect each other’s boundaries, but only after a few initial blow-outs.
Like the time I was staring at my laptop screen deep in thought. He recounted his day to an unresponsive partner and that set off an argument. Another time, he was using his phone and I asked him a question thinking whatever he was doing could not be as important as me. When I didn’t get an answer after repeating my question, we broke into another argument.
Whether it’s a personal, professional, or acquaintance level of relationship, mutual respect begins with communicating boundary preferences.
Ways to Protect Our Space, Virtually
Below is a collection suggested ways to safeguard our sphere of comfort. Recall zone 1 is reserved for sweethearts and parents, while zone 2 is for trusted companions.
Respect the boundaries of others and time messages accordingly
With people in zone 1, we probably have the widest range of leeway to send digital messages at hours beyond socially accepted business hours.
With people in zone 2, we should consider time zone differences, and send virtual messages that respect those. For example, if it’s a request to a work colleague, send it during work hours.
With people outside of zone 1 or 2, we can send a signal that we would like to talk. Then wait for the other person to be available before launching into the conversation.
Set your own boundaries based on your relationship zone
With people in zone 1, let them know when it is appropriate to contact you, and if there are times when it is unlikely that you will be available or that you prefer to be contacted only if in an emergency.
With people in zone 2, let them know the best times and approach to get a hold of you.
With people outside of zone 1 or 2, you will likely ignore or respond later if interested. As people from zone 3 transition to zone 1 or 2, you can define new boundaries. (Note that choosing to ignore a message is often quite appropriate—you are not required to respond to every demand someone tries to make on your time and attention.)
How to Ask for Online Personal Space
We are all learning about how to navigate personal space in our virtual environment. The convenience of messaging anyone at any time means we have to be assertive in creating our virtual boundaries. Here are suggestions for common scenarios I’ve encountered.
The chatty colleague
This is the person who interrupts you at whim, often about work-related things, but at inopportune moments.
Suggest to this colleague (in person or online) to have this discussion at a different time. This can be done respectfully by sharing the fact that you want to continue the conversation, but right now you have prior project commitments to complete first.
Sample chat: ‘Hey, (name of a colleague), this is a good conversation we are having. I’d like to explore your ideas when we both have time. Right now, I have a project commitment to get back to, because our team is depending on me to get this done today. Can we talk about it after the staff meeting tomorrow?’
The manager with high availability expectations
You may need to let your manager know in advance when you might not be available. Doing this demonstrates responsible thinking and alleviates any pressure on your part to regularly check your phone.
Sample communication: ‘Just a heads up in case you’re looking for me today and tomorrow — I will be less available between 9 a.m. — 12 p.m., since we’re producing our year-end reports. Please phone me if an urgent matter comes up.’
You might want to borrow some of the strategies of “inbox Zero” practitioners. Many of the techniques used to control an overflowing inbox are actually about setting expectations on availability, including autoresponders that tell the sender you check email once a day and explicit guidelines for when to contact you by email.
The virtual team with an undefined communications process
It’s up to you to take the initiative to help your team communicate better.
The details of how you do that depend on factors within the team. But once you define what does work, set working guidelines among team members and ask everyone to honour a documented agreement.
Sample team agreement:
- Check availability for a conversation before starting a lengthy message
- Set preferred times for teamwork vs individual work. For example, mornings are for individual work, afternoons are for group collaboration efforts.
- Regularly audit adherence to guidelines and remind each other
Notify key stakeholders of planned time away
For upcoming time away, I plan. I check in with contacts I work with often, so they have an opportunity to get any information from me before I’m out of the office. Doing these typically avoids any incoming requests until I return to work. These are the common steps I take:
- 5 days in advance: Remind the team of the day(s) I will be away without access
- 3 days in advance: Ask the team if there is anything that may need my attention
- 1 day in advance: Thank the team for supporting my time away and include my office return date
How to Show Respect for Virtual Space of Others at Work
What prompted me to be conscious of this precious commodity at our work? Last year’s results from our employee engagement survey.
My team clarified that the reason behind their high-stress score was the high volume of text messages they received. One team member explained, ‘When I receive a chat message from my manager, I think it must be urgent, and I should drop what I’m doing to respond.’
The reality is that I didn’t expect a quick response 99% of the time. I felt that the message needed a quick response if there was an overall system outage for example. Regardless of what I intended, however, the team felt the pressure to respond immediately. I was overrunning their virtual boundaries.
Here are the procedures I have implemented—and recommend you implement as well—to better respect their time and attention:
Adjust meeting times and messages to align with individual time zones
Add another time zone to your calendar so you are aware of possible impacts on the recipient of your meeting request.
Before I send a message or set a meeting, I quickly glance at the Atlantic time zone; it might be lunch or dinner for someone there. In many cases, I have adjusted the suggested time for a meeting so that it will be during their business hours.
There are two steps to setting up a secondary time zone in Google calendar:
Even when you are unable to accommodate all schedules, knowing the time difference allows you to show appreciation for the team member’s extra efforts to be available. I have received appreciative thank yous for these gestures:
- Openly thank a team member who adjusted their schedule to attend a meeting outside of their working hours
- Suggest meeting time changes to organizers who may be unaware of other colleagues’ location differences
Schedule emails to be sent during regular business hours
When I find myself with time to respond to emails in the evening or the weekends, I schedule them to be sent later.
I started this approach last year because the topic came up in our annual management meeting on ways we can reduce stress on our teams.
I find this approach great because it does not impose how I conduct my work, which I sometimes prefer to do outside of office hours. I get to maintain my preferred schedule, but it does not impinge into others’ personal space.
My low tech option until more recently was: write out the email and leave it in the Draft box, then send it on the next business day.
Google understands the tension between “work when you want” and “show consideration for others.” They recently launched the capability to send emails at a later time. Emails scheduled for a later date are stored in a Scheduled folder. The separation of future scheduled emails allows you to find them easily and change the date and time they will go out.
There are 2 steps to set a future email send date and time in Gmail:
Ask a colleague for availability before starting a real-time conversation
I used to begin a text or chat message with a colleague by saying hello, then launching directly into what I need—a question or a request. In some cases, I received immediate responses but didn’t know I threw off someone else’s productivity.
Now, my virtual interaction looks more like how we would interact with someone in person:
- Initiate a chat message
- Say hello or hi, how are you?
- Then wait for their response
- Reply with another non-work specific response
- Then ask, ‘Do you have x minutes for a question?’ ← be specific with how long this might take
Some times I have four to five open chats that span over an entire day before I can ask my question. When I started using this method, I often lost track of my original intention because of the delay in the other person’s response. I now have a list, so I don’t forget. Some times, I type out the text in the chat window but don’t send until the other person is ready to receive it.
Let the reader know the message is not urgent and it’s OK to respond later
The weight of a manager’s request is heavy. Most people have a hard time to say they are in the middle of another task to their boss. I use these phrases in my messages to emphasize I’m not looking for an immediate response:
- This is for discussion the next time we meet.
- This is not urgent.
- Feel free to write to me when you are free for a chat on x.
Summary of How to Maintain Your Personal Space
Having and defining one’s territory is a protective human instinct. The invisible distance around us differs from person to person based on various factors and societal norms we grew up with.
Digital tools and virtual work have made us think twice about how to preserve our online comfort zone. The primary focus here is to recognize our boundaries and understand the limits of sharing our space, yet still have the flexibility to expand and share our happiness with others anytime, anyplace.
These are good practices for maintaining socially acceptable distance for communication, offline or online:
- Set and communicate our digital messaging boundaries to others
- Use judgment of how close we should interact with others to maintain comfort levels for all involved
- Recognize we are all different in our communication and distance preferences so talk about them together
If we understand the limits of sharing our space, yet still have flexibility, we can have enriching dialogues with others at the respectful time and place.