Keep 'em separated? The shifting boundaries between work and home

August 30, 2006

When Blake Ashforth, management professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business, visits the family cottage in Canada, built by his grandfather, he takes a laptop. By any measure, Ashforth is busy. He's the author of more than 70 articles and book chapters on identity and identification in organizational settings, socialization and newcomer work adjustment, the dysfunctions of organizational structures and processes, and the links among individual-, group-, and organization-level phenomena.


Packing the laptop makes Ashforth typical of full-plate employees these days. But it hasn't always been this way -- Ashforth's grandfather was a bank president, and he made sure the getaway had no phones. "He did not want to be bothered while he was on vacation," Ashforth said.


Ashforth doesn't really want to be, either. Part of the change is the availability of cell phones and portable computers that enable workers to transport their work outside the office. These technologies have become modern day "Trojan Horses" which carry work across the border into non-work areas. This capability affects the options available for handling life's multiple roles and is challenging workers and managers to find new answers.



Integrated or segregated


Ashforth has looked at these issues from the perspective of "boundary theory" research. In his paper, "All in a Day's Work: Boundaries and Micro-Role Transitions," he writes that individuals "create and maintain boundaries as a means of simplifying and ordering the environment." These "mental fences" surround geographical areas (national borders), but also historical events (the Great Depression, the Vietnam War), people (your high school class), ideas (a political party platform), etc.


"The process results in the creation of slices of reality -- domains -- that have particular meaning for the individuals creating and maintaining the boundaries," he writes. "'Home,' 'work' and 'church' are examples of the social domains created by boundaries."


Some of us keep our domains strictly separate, but others allow some crossover -- a worker may allow home issues to impinge on his time at the office, for example. The crossover creates an impact, though. Because domains by their nature are different from each other, crossing between them requires mental, emotional or physical effort.


Just as we define places with boundaries, we also draw lines around the roles we play, Ashforth continues. An individual person can be a wife, a manager and a friend, depending on the domain. These roles, Ashforth writes, involve flexibility and permeability.


"A role with flexible boundaries can be enacted in various settings and at various times." The example he offers is a man working in the family business who at times during the work day assumes the role of a son. In contrast, an example of a role with inflexible boundaries is that of a security guard -- the worker assumes that role only at work.


Permeability applies to our places, our domains.


"Permeability is the degree to which a role allows one to be physically located in the role's domain, but psychologically and/or behaviorally involved in another role," reports Ashforth. An employee who can take a call from home while at the office is experiencing permeability.


Just as domains by definition differ from each other, so do roles. The degree of "contrast" between roles depends upon the number of characteristics that they share or don't share. For example, a manager might be expected to be self-reliant, stable, decisive, and objective. The same person, when assuming the role of a family member, is expected to be "warm, nurturant, emotional and vulnerable," Ashforth writes.


Theorists have described the journey across the boundaries of our roles and our domains as crossing an abyss -- an apt description of the evening commute of a manager who must shift gears into her mother role.


How do we deal with this complex problem? We can adapt by segregating or by integrating our roles.


Segmentation means that we keep our role identities separate depending on where we are. Complete "Jekyll and Hyde" segmentation is unusual, Ashforth writes. People in stigmatized professions might keep their jobs secret from their families – think Brad Pitt and Anjelina Jolie, the professional assassins who conceal their professions from each other in the movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."


High segmentation is more common. Even though many roles have attributes in common, segmentation allows a person to focus on what he or she needs to be in a particular domain. At work, the manager adopts the characteristics of her title and drops the attributes of a family member, allowing her to concentrate. High segmentors experience difficulties when they cross the border to home, however. They must psychologically exit one role and enter the other.


Integration means that we maintain a role identity as we cross into another domain. Just as complete segmentation is rare, so is complete integration. An individual living in a monastic order is an example of someone who has completely integrated personal and work roles.


High integrators would include home-based workers who get up from the computer to shift laundry into the dryer, or people who work in a family business. While segregators experience difficulty moving from one role to another, transition is not a problem for integrators. Their toughest issues involve setting boundaries and managing the blurring of roles. Ashforth offers the example of the manager who receives a call from home during a meeting. Although the manager routinely handles family issues at work, tension develops concerning which role is dominant. "The mother must choose between the parent role (and excuse herself from the meeting) or the work role (and call the child later)," he writes.



Defending the home front


Integrate or segregate -- it's a matter of individual proclivity.


"We do vary," Ashforth says. "Not everybody's alike. Some are quite happy to have the boss over for dinner. Some people do welcome that -- the integrators. For others, it's a threat, and it's increasingly one-way." Many employers think it's OK to take your work home, for example, or to be available on your cell phone or by e-mail, but not acceptable to surf the Internet during office hours or make personal phone calls at work.


Many experts assert that too much work is bad for you, however. Overwork can be unhealthy for the body -- stress and heart disease have long been understood to be partners. Ashforth says it's also no good for the mind to work too much, rarely clearing your thoughts of the daily grind. Psychology researchers in the Netherlands identified what they call "leisure sickness," and presented their findings to the American Psychosomatic Society in 2001. In a study of more than 100 people who suffered from headaches, fatigue, nausea and muscle pains on weekends and holidays, the researchers found that "people who are perfectionists, carry large workloads and feel very responsible for their work are more apt to suffer from these symptoms." One of their suggestions for relief included paying more attention to family and fostering a different perception of work.


"I do worry that we're losing the moments for deep reflection, not only for profound thinking, but also relaxation," Ashforth says. "That's to everybody's detriment. We are our own jailers."


What can companies do? Many have attempted to address employee needs by offering perks designed to mediate work/life issues. It's not as easy as installing an employee weight room or day care center, however. Companies would do well to consider the challenges presented by segmentation and integration as they design their responses.


Policies allowing flex-time, on-site day care, in-office recreational facilities, telecommuting, hand-held email devices -- all of these foster greater integration between work and home. As a result, employee role boundaries become increasingly flexible and permeable, Ashforth finds.


There may be unintended consequences, however. "On-site day care might cause working parents to feel that they should visit their children periodically during the workday, thereby interrupting the flow of their work role," he writes. The upshot: compromise of the integrity of both home and work.


"Given our argument that individuals vary in their preference for segmentation/integration, but that few desire complete integration, we caution organizations not to blindly or forcefully blur the work, home, and [other] domains," Ashforth writes. Instead, he calls for measures that show respect for a worker's life outside of the office: "practices that acknowledge and value the mutual needs of employer and employee and allow the employee a reasonable degree of autonomy in negotiating role(s)."


A study of Canadian managers showed that flexible work schedules and alternative work arrangements signaled the company's respect for their personal lives and increased their commitment to the job. However, practices that pointed toward more integration (on-site recreational facilities, counseling, assistance programs), as well as those that promoted segmentation (rules requiring strict separation of personal and work worlds) signaled a lack of respect, and diminished employee commitment.


Those PDAs and laptops? They simply exacerbate the issues. They increase our ability to be flexible (performing a role outside of its domain, be it home or work) and permeable (being located in one place but performing a role associated with another). Often they are adopted without much thought to the consequences.


"We're leaving this to the individual to sort out, and it's hard for any one person to stem the tide [of technology-fueled boundary-crossing]," Ashforth says. "We've now made personal an organizational problem, but most people haven't got the power to re-draw the boundaries."


When work and home overlap: suggestions for companies and workers:


  • Move carefully when addressing employees' work/home issues to avoid adopting measures that increase unwanted integration.
  • One study shows that employee commitment increases when companies enact policies respectful of their personal lives.
  • Perks companies think are helpful sometimes end up blurring the lines even further.
  • When you do take the job home, create an office -- or at least a designated area -- for work and make it off-limits to children, unless there's an emergency.
  • Rather than tethering yourself to a cell phone, use voicemail or an answering machine to guard the home boundary, then check for messages at a time that's right for you.