Are Cell Phones Helping or Hurting Work-Life Balance?

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For many knowledge workers, mobile technology has all but eradicated the boundary that exists between our work and personal lives. We use our phones while in meetings, on vacation, having family dinner, in a house of worship, and even in the bathroom. With the ability to work literally anytime and anywhere, we no longer have the physical or time boundaries that once defined our work and personal realms. I’ve spent a career researching work-family conflict and while the academic research is mixed, one thing is clear. If we, as individuals, don’t define and defend our work-home boundary, no one else will be doing it for us.

Generally, the work-life boundary is referred to as either integrated or segmented i.e. those who blur their work and personal lives and those who don’t. Researchers have used this dichotomous integration-segmentation classification, but it fails to really define how boundaries are managed. Should an employee who works from home two days per week – but treats work time as sacrosanct, with no interferences from personal demands while working – be considered an integrator or segmentor? While working from home is an aspect of integrating, keeping a firm boundary on work time is more aligned with segmentation.

It’s more helpful to think of boundary along three dimensions: flexibility, home boundary permeability, and work boundary permeability.

Flexibility is the degree to which boundaries between work and personal roles can shift. A doctor, teacher, or construction worker may have little flexibility in when work must be completed, due to the physicality of their work. Due to mobile technology, knowledge workers are often afforded more flexibility. Whether formal programs, such as flex time or telework, or informal, such as making up lost time from leaving early by working at home in the evening, employees are better able to integrate work and family demands. Generally, researchers have found that flexibility contributes to lower stress and higher work and life satisfaction.

Not sure whether you have a flexible boundary or not? Answer these questions and add up your points.

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Boundaries can be permeable in addition to being flexible. Boundary permeability is the extent to which we integrate the obligations of one role when in the other role. Mobile technology supports boundary permeability. Whether we’re responding to a client’s email at the school’s chorale concert or watching the concert via Skype while in the office, technology offers employees the ability to continually cross boundaries. Some of us may have embraced integration and have very permeable boundaries between work and home. Others may be “old school” and not allow work to intrude during personal time or personal demands to infringe during work time.

The home and work boundary may have differences in permeability. Perhaps you are very protective of your personal time and minimize work intrusions but are comfortable doing personal tasks, such as online shopping or communicating with friends/family during work time. Others are the opposite, keeping personal duties separate when working but allowing work to encroach during personal time. Generally, researchers have found that boundary permeability causes conflict and the associated decline in work and life satisfaction.

Answer the following questions and add up your score to see whether you have a permeable boundary for work and home.

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Do the benefits of flexibility balance outweigh the potential negatives of permeability? The table below presents a summary of the eight combinations of flexibility, work boundary permeability, and home boundary permeability. The largest segment (28%) are the true integrators. They have flexibility and maintain permeable boundaries for both work and home. While they rank the highest for life satisfaction, they rank lowest for work satisfaction. At the other extreme, true segmenters with no flexibility and neither permeable home nor work boundaries are only 8% of the sample but rank high in both job (#2) and life (#3) satisfaction.

Summary of Boundry Outcomes

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My research doesn’t diagnose, treat, or prevent work-life conflict or job/life satisfaction. It provides a snapshot of the experiences of a sample of working professionals and there are plenty of questions still to address. Do demographic characteristics, like gender or age, impact the type of boundaries we maintain and the resulting outcomes? Are some job types or personalities more likely to have or prefer certain boundary? Are these issues of correlation or causation?

If anything, this research is a starting point for thinking about and discussing the work-life balance we want. Some countries have recognized and taken legislative action to assist employees in defining their work time. According to a recent article in Fortune, France is now requiring companies to set limits on when employees can send or respond to emails. While some organizations have been proactive in work-life balance, most Americans are still in the Wild West with little guidance or support in navigating this new boundary-less terrain. As we move through 2019, let’s take a moment to be mindful about the division we want between work and home and how we can thoughtfully and purposively use technology to support it.

If you’re interested in contributing to my work-life boundary research study, please take a few minutes to complete the questionnaire here: