In 2004, my colleague Mark Hoffman popped by my office to tell me his daughter’s employer had just given her a computer, so she could access work from home. I was studying work-family conflict at the time, and he—rightly—figured this would be a game-changer for her work-life balance.
Since that day, Mark and I have been examining the impact of technology on how people navigate their work and personal lives.
Many popular articles portray technology as a villain in this regard. They describe how smartphones allow the workplace to invade home life, creating a digital leash for workers (but don’t mention the ways that the same technology might help workers connect with their personal lives during the work day). According to the conventional wisdom that often follows, the key for everyone to “achieve work-life balance” is to separate work and personal life—no work emails at home in the evening and no personal messages at work during the day.
In our studies on this topic, however, Mark and I have found that this is not necessarily the best strategy for everyone. Some people prefer that their work and personal lives overlap a lot. Some prefer to keep them totally separate. In three survey studies we’ve conducted, which together have involved more than 1,000 participants, we’ve found that technology can have positive and negative impacts.
The key is to be thoughtful and intentional about how we use our devices.
In a recent study, Mark and I interviewed 25 people (14 women, 11 men) about how they used their smartphones to set up their work-personal life boundaries to their liking.
One of the first things we noticed when we started analyzing the interview responses is that most of our interviewees seemed not to have a good handle on what they were actually doing with their technology. So they might tell us at the beginning of the interview that they strongly preferred to keep work and home separate, but then would go on to describe all of the ways they integrate work and home. When we asked questions to get interviewees to drill down on the actual practices they used with their phones, our most frequent response was along the lines of “Wow…I’ve never thought about this before.”
By contrast, the most successful tactics for establishing and managing boundaries between work and personal life were done with forethought and intentionality. People described making sure that others at work or home know about their availability in one domain or the other, such as letting a significant other know that you’ll be in meetings all day and can’t take calls at work.
They also described using the people in their domains to assist with boundary management. One interviewee, for instance, described asking her roommate to hide her phone so she could not respond to messages. Still others had come up with particular ways of transitioning between work and personal life that were almost ritualized, such as waiting until after breakfast with the family to check in on work emails.
One of the most important differences between people who successfully taken control over their boundaries and those who had not were “pop up boundaries.” People who were happy with the boundaries they’d set between work and personal life tended to see them as flexible rather than fixed. They could make changes to their boundaries when they needed to meet some upcoming demand. For example, one interviewee, a 57-year-old mother and company president, described her ideal in this way: “I think for me, the ideal would be that I could control it. So it’s not about whether it’s integrated or separate, but that I would get to choose when it’s integrated, and how it’s integrated, and when it’s separate.” This respondent acknowledged that things to remember or new ideas for work popped up for her on the weekend, but said she would hand-write a note to herself to deal with it on Monday rather than emailing her employees on the weekend. She thought of this as a perfect way to quickly drop the boundary around home for herself to deal with a work matter in a way that preserved her own personal time and the personal time of her employees.
Instead of striving to separate work and life technologies, it would be helpful if we learned how to create these “pop up boundaries.”
We suggest being mindful about what it is that you want: Do you want to separate your work and personal life most of the time or integrate them?
Set expectations with the people in your work and personal lives by letting them know about your availability and your practices. For instance, I tell my undergraduate students that I don’t respond to emails on the weekend. I also tell them that I will have to answer my phone in class if the kids’ school calls. My children know that, because I leave work early in the day so that I can be home in time to meet their school bus, I will have to do some work from home after dinner. As for my colleague, Mark, years ago he stopped checking work email from home after 7 pm in order to preserve sound sleep.
Another tip: Get to know the capabilities of your devices. We heard from some respondents that they had never considered turning off the audible notifications of incoming messages. We suspect that many people don’t spend time learning how they can turn notifications off and on, or how to use calendars and other apps in different ways.
The key to smart use of your smartphone is to know it, know yourself, and be purposeful about how you use your phone to build and manage boundaries.
Carrie A. Bulger is Professor of Psychology, with a joint appointment as Professor in the Department of Medical Studies, at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.