ResearchWork-Home Boundary Blurring

Differing forms of work-family boundary management

'Technology, Work, and Family: Digital Cultural Capital and Boundary Management'.

Extracts and a summary of research byAriane Ollier-Malaterre, Jerry A. Jacobs, and Nancy P. Rothbard (2019) – (based in Canada and the USA) who set out to develop a framework for how technology, work and family intersect, especially regarding how tech is changing the boundaries between work, home and play. Although this is a 2019 Annual Review of Sociology, conducted prior to the shift towards greater degrees of hybrid work, the principles of the theories remain unchanged.

Key quotes from the research:

  • ‘…boundaries between work and family are permeable … events from one domain affect the other… it is the permeability of these boundaries that makes boundary management such a key skill, enabling people to balance work and family life.’
  • ‘… technologies directly influence how people experience work and family life by further increasing the porousness of the temporal, spatial and relational boundaries between work and family roles and identities. This porousness in turn makes the management of connectivity, online self-preservation, and privacy more challenging and calls for more elaborate technology management.’
  • ‘technology management: work performed to gain control over technology and its associated social norms in order to align one’s use of technology and one’s values and goals.’ 

Summary of the research: 

The boundaries that we create between work and home can be compared to a ‘mental fence’ that divides two differing life roles. Like any physical geographic boundary, this fence can have varying degrees of permeability and cross-over-ability.

However, we only have a small amount of control over this mental fence that we create. Company norms, team expectations, or our own internal mental processes may scupper our ability to manage these mental fences. 

Boundary Types

There are not just 1, but rather 3 types of boundary fences that we need to consider: temporal, spatial and relational. 

  • Temporal boundaries are time-based and exist whether we work in a flexible or a more structured role. Conducting work outside of the times we have set aside for work each day is an example of the blurring of this boundary. There is some debate as to the impacts versus payoffs of a constant state of connectivity with work via technology (mainly through mobile phones). The downsides including overwork, productivity levels and work-family conflict are weighed up against the upsides such as greater ambition and work involvement.
  • Spatial boundaries are our ability to separate the places where we engage in work and home activities. With better connectivity and the ability to work from home, these boundaries have become a lot more porous. Even carrying a mobile phone with you after work hours, that instantly connects you to work email, is an example of expanding work into nonwork time and infringing on both temporal and spatial boundaries.
  • Relational boundaries refer to a person’s choice of whether to build friendships with work colleagues or keep these relationships strictly professional. This includes linking up with work people on social media sites – depending on the level of personal or professional self that is revealed on each platform. 

The increasing porousness of each of these boundaries requires greater levels of awareness, motivation and active management to navigate and curate multiple identities and life roles.

This constant management of online identities is referred to as ‘digital cultural capital’, which requires technical skill and is both time and effort-intensive. It also requires awareness of the impact of self-information disclosure on both personal relationships and professional reputation. 

Connectivity Decisions

The first challenge in managing digital cultural capital is connectivity decisions. Although some groups have little control over their connectivity decisions – often due to company cultural norms and expectations – most people have some control over their digital connectivity, which allows them to feel some element of digital control (rather than being controlled by their devices).

Some of the strategies that are used to manage connectivity are: keeping the phone out of easy reach or sight, managing notifications per app, decisions on how to be notified and when to check, and respond to, notifications. Some people leave work phones at work, in the boot of their car or turn them off when arriving home.

Online Self-preservation

The second challenge is online self-preservation management – i.e. monitoring how one appears in cyberspace – and includes both what is posted about yourself as well as what others post about you (with or without your permission). It requires constant surveillance and work to present a unified online presence, and has the potential to be perilous.

Whatever the online strategy used to manage an online profile, it requires everyday awareness, effort, skill and decision-making to consider the online content audience, as well as personal and professional impact.

Privacy Management

The third challenge is around privacy management. Technology amplifies the placement and blurring of boundaries between private and social life. There is debate amongst academics and lawyers as to whether online content is private or public and many questions are arising around privacy, visibility and surveillance.

Efforts by individuals to safeguard their personal information is a form of technology management and also require extensive energy and effort. 

Connectivity Management

Perspectives on connectivity vary across social groups.

Higher-income bracket individuals tend to limit their connectivity. They also attempt to transfer their digital cultural capital values and perspectives onto their children – encouraging a more active social life offline and spending time discussing digital deviant behaviour such as cyberbullying, risky behaviour such as compromising photo disclosure, and the need to switch off.

They tend to spend more time monitoring their children’s media use, helping them develop good digital habits and working on their privacy settings.