Work-Life Balance and Smartphones: Disaster in the Making?

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Work-life balance is under attack: gone are the days where one could simply leave work at the office and go home. When home and work were physically located in separate places, the psychological boundaries, or “mental fences”, that individuals created to designate different domains in life were more rigid and clearly defined. However, with the advent of information communication technology (ICT), workers can now be connected to work from almost anywhere.

According to boundary theory, individuals can choose to either segment or integrate their roles (work, family, or personal) by deliberately constructing psychological boundaries of varying degrees of permeability. Permeability is the degree to which one is psychologically or behaviorally involved in one role but physically located in the other role’s domain. For instance, a person has permeable boundaries if his supervisor or co-workers can easily reach him at home. Research has suggested that the extent to which people will leave one role to attend demands from another role differs from person to person. With technology making it easier to “take work home” or respond to work demands in the home or family domain, there are negative consequences on work-life balance.

A new study by Derks, van Duin, Tims, and Bakker (2015) conducted a four day diary study to investigate the relationship between smartphone use and work-home interference, or the conflict between work and non-work domains. The authors examined how social norms, specifically the influence of colleagues and supervisors, and engagement at work can impact the constant connectivity to technology, specifically smartphone use. They found that daily fluctuations in smartphone use related directly to fluctuations in the conflict between work and home life. When people used their smartphone frequently in the evening, it resulted in greater levels of work-home interference during that day.

 

IS THERE PEER (AND SUPERVISOR) PRESSURE TO BE CONNECTED?

Individuals who are provided smartphones for work must balance their home and personal lives with the expectations of fast response times and constant availability. Two strong influences of the “always on” culture are: colleagues’ norm to always stay connected and supervisors’ expectations of responsiveness and availability.

Based on supervisor expectations, individuals may have the urge to respond to messages during non-work hours.  For example, the supervisor who sends an email at 10pm is endorsing the notion that working late into the night is expected. The study found that when employees had supervisors who expected them to respond to work-related emails in the evening (and thus greater smartphone use), they had greater work-home interference than employees who did not have such supervisor expectations.

On the other hand, the norms set by colleagues to respond to emails in the evenings did not influence the relationship between smartphone use and work-home interference. After closer examination, the authors concluded that the trend in the data was in the expected direction, meaning that on days that employees used their smartphones intensively and had greater peer pressure from their coworkers to stay connected, they experienced greater work-home interference. However, these results missed being statistically significant by a relatively small margin.

 

DOES WORK ENGAGEMENT CHANGE ANYTHING?

The authors found that work engagement acts as a buffer (in other words, reduces the harmful effects) of smartphone use and work-home interference. Employees who felt engaged and absorbed in their work experienced less work-home interference than those who were not as engaged. Perhaps engaged workers are better able to complete tasks during the work day, resulting in less unfinished business that can spillover into the evening. Or perhaps engaging at work allows people to psychologically detach from work during non-work hours.

 

IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS

Overall, the authors found evidence for organizational culture being a strong influence of employee smartphone use after hours. The authors caution important role models, such as supervisors, to be aware of the message that they are sending their employees when they send emails during evening hours and weekends. Organizations that provide their employees with smartphones should ensure that supervisors create clear expectations regarding availability and discuss the consequences of work-home interference.

In a more positive light, the authors found that by being engaged at work, employees are less likely to experience negative interference from work to their personal life. Given that smartphone use is on the rise, organizations will benefit from creating work environments that increase employee engagement.