Blurring Work and Non-Work Boundaries: Two Sides to the Story (IO Psychology)

Topic(s): conflict
Publication: Journal of Management
Article: The Use of Communication Technologies After Hours: The Role of Work Attitudes and Work-Life Conflict
Authors: W.R. Boswell & J.B. Olson-Buchanan
Reviewed by: Lauren A. Wood, M.S.

The rapid advancement of communication technologies (CTs) in recent years is widely believed to be one of the main drivers behind changes in work. The ease and availability of CTs allows employees unprecedented access to information, people, and most importantly, their work from anywhere and at anytime. While previous generations of workers “stopped the clock” at 5:00pm, many modern employees continue to check-in to work after traditional work hours – leading to blurry work-non-work boundaries. Researchers have predicted both positive and negative outcomes to result from this shift in working hours. Specifically, using CTs to check-in to work after hours, may be a sign of greater commitment to the organization, or high job involvement and ambition on the part of the employee. But, the negative side of greater time spent working is less time for non-work activities possibility resulting in work-family conflict.

Researchers Boswell and Olson-Buchanan were interested in examining the effects of checking-in on work during non-work hours from the perspective of the organization, the employee, and the employee’s spouse. Specifically, they recorded after-hours CT usage, both spouses’ perceptions of work-family conflict, and levels of the employee’s affective organizational commitment to the organization, ambition, and job involvement.

The results showed that highly ambitious employees who are greatly involved in their work are more likely to use CTs for longer time periods after work hours then employees who lack ambition and job involvement. Interestingly, however, employees spending a greater number of hours connecting to work after hours are not more committed to their organizations. Based on this, it seems that highly determined employees (i.e., ambitious and involved) are using CT after hours to “get ahead” rather than because they feel loyal or obligated to the organization.

However, there does seem to be a price to getting ahead by utilizing CTs during non-work hours – employees who spent greater time using CTs to connect to work during traditional “family time” experienced greater levels of work-family conflict as reported by the employee and by the employee’s spouse. Specifically, employee use of CTs after work explained an additional 2% of the variance in work-family conflict from the perspective of the employee and an additional 13% from the perspective of the spouse, suggesting that the employee may not fully realize the negative impact of his/her CT after hours usage from the perspective of his/her spouse.

Taken together, although employees may willingly engage in CT usage after traditional work hours to get ahead, this activity results in negative work-family balance implications from the perspective of the employee and, to a greater extent, from the perspective of the employee’s spouse. Organizations can help employees by discouraging after-hour and weekend email communication. More realistic an option may be to employ family-friendly practices and policies designed to decrease work-family conflict such as flex options or child-care benefits.

Boswell, W. R., & Olson-Buchanan, J. B. (2007). The use of communication technologies after hours: The role of work attitudes and work-life conflict. Journal of Management, 33, 592–610.