ResearchWork-Home Boundary Blurring

The advantage of creating bespoke boundary-blurring strategies

'From Work to Life and Back Again: Examining the Digitally-Mediated Work/Life Practices of a Group of Knowledge Workers'.

Extracts and summary of the research by: Luigina Ciolfi & Eleanor Lockley (2018)

Key quotes from the research:

  • ‘[those in] knowledge-intensive roles devise strategies for handling work and non-work in light of a set of interconnected forces’ 
  • ‘Boundary dissolving and work-life blurring, and not just boundary setting and ‘balancing’, are essential resources within [boundary management] strategies’
  • ‘Boundary sculpting pertains not only to work pervading personal spheres of life, but also the opposite, and that establishing, softening and dissolving boundaries are practised to handle situations when the personal seeps into professional life’
  • ‘Establishing, softening and dissolving boundaries are practised to handle situations when the personal seeps into professional life’ 

Summary of the research:

The boundaries that we set, dissolve, blur and manage between work, home and play are how office workers juggle and deal with, the changing demands of both professional and personal tasks. Every worker has a boundary strategy that is unique to them and entirely dependent on personal preferences, individual circumstances, working styles, the expectations of others and specific work culture.

Home and hobbies can be time and labour-intensive, and require as much professional management as paid work. Home life can be as intrusive of work as work can be of home life. Boundaries that are set in one direction are independent to the boundaries set in the reverse direction.

The setting of boundaries is not limited to geographic location, time of day, technology ownership or application used, but can also include mindset, identities, ambitions, social practices and cognitive practices.

There is a continuum of boundary-setting strategies from ‘segmentation’ to ‘integration’ of work and home life. Everyone has a different interpretation of what the words and resulting actions mean to them.

Boundary strategies can either be a resource or a constraint. They can change and be adapted depending on life stage and lifestyle adjustments. Although a life stage is not a precursor that dictates the type of strategy we implement e.g. working parents can either be strong segmenters, or strong integrators as can single people, young or more mature workers.

Those whose work is closely tied to their core life passions view additional reading and work-type tasks as professional development or self-improvement. In contrast, others (a portion of whom may regard work as a means to an end) view having to engage in work-related tasks during personal time as eating into their recovery time or as unpaid work and time away from their family or hobbies.

Digital technology is a mediator of both boundary setting and blurring.

For some, being able to check emails and messages after hours can be a ‘lifeline’ to manage their workload – giving them a sense of control or to ‘signal availability’ when away from the office.

For others, access to emails outside of working hours is an interference. They use various tactics to fence off work from private time. These can range from:

  • technology-based solutions – such as leaving laptops and mobiles in a car boot overnight or setting out-of-office messages – to
  • person-based solutions – such as informing others of availability patterns and when to expect a response.

Reflection on the research:

The researchers specifically qualify that they ‘do not buy into the myth of the mobile worker who can seamlessly handle demands through flexible work arrangements and ubiquitous technology’ and ‘self-regulation is a crucial component for knowledge-intensive flexible work’. This is an important consideration in the remote and hybrid work environment. Although many take on a remote/hybrid or flexible working pattern, the expectation can be that it is as easy to maintain focus and productivity in the same way as being in the office does. Spending time with others in a similar activity is a key motivator to keep going and needs less self-regulation than sitting alone in a quiet space. Remote/hybrid and flexible workers will need different strategies and develop purposeful working patterns and tools/strategies to keep them motivated and focused away from the office.

What also seems to come through in this research is the notion that the setting and dissolving of boundaries between work and home life is something that workers need to proactively sculpt, manage and adjust according to life circumstances and demands.

The researchers also view ‘boundary sculpting [to] relate to spaces/locations (being at the office, or travelling, or at home), time (times of the day or days of the week), tasks (certain tasks are acted upon, others are not) or social circles/other people’. The creation of work-home-play boundaries is not limited to just whether or not we are looking at our work emails and messages during non-work time, but rather that both active and passive engagement in work during private time is a form of boundary setting.

Some acronyms used in the research document: 

  • CSCW: Computer-Supported Cooperative Work
  • HCI: Human-Computer Interaction