Re-Defining Work-Life Boundaries: Individual, Organizational, and National Policy Implications

Re-Defining Work-Life Boundaries: Individual, Organizational, and National Policy Implications

Donna Weaver McCloskey (Widener University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2235-6.ch002


Technology has radically changed the way we live and work. This chapter explores the boundaries that knowledge workers employ to delineate work and personal time and the resulting outcomes. Based on scholarly research, the author proposes redefining the work-life boundary into three dimensions: flexibility, work boundary permeability, and home boundary permeability. While no longer able to control the time and place factors that once defined our work and personal time, employees can use behavioral and communicative tactics to maintain balance. These individual policy decisions and potential work-life balance tools are discussed. Organizations can support new boundary controls through education, support, and training. Finally, technology has resulted in cultural and societal changes, which may continue to be supported through national policy.
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Review Of Work-Life Boundary Research

Boundary theory suggests individuals create physical, temporal (time), behavioral and communicative barriers between their work and personal life (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2009). Prior to the internet-age, boundaries were pretty clear for knowledge workers – the workplace was defined by the office setting and business hours and there was little spillover from one domain to another. Internet access in the workplace changed the boundary that existed between our work and personal life. While most office workers would never do physical personal activities in the workplace, such as watching TV or reading a book, online access made entertainment, shopping and socialization accessible during work time. Over 72% of North American respondents have indicated they shop online while at work (Adams, Weinberg, Jarrett, & Surette, 2005). An Australian study found that nearly 74% of calls and 88% of text messages exchanged during the work day were not business related (Wajcman, Bittman, & Brown, 2008). A 2012 survey of 3,200 working adults by reported that 64% visit non-work related websites every day during work hours and 21% reported spending up to 5 hours per week doing personal tasks during work time. Some individuals were able to personally regulate their use of the internet for personal reasons, such as only logging into social media and other forms of entertainment during a lunch break. Many organizations found it necessary to enforce a work-personal boundary by either monitoring usage or eliminating access to non-work related sites.

Internet access in the workplace changed the work boundary but portable computers and home networks lead to an explosion of new work models. Knowledge workers were now able to work from other physical locations, ushering in the growth of remote work, primarily referred to as telecommuting. Researchers examined the impact of this integration of work and home life and found both positive and negative outcomes (McCloskey, 1998). A meta-analytic examination of 46 research studies by Gajendran and Harrison (2007) concluded that telecommuting had beneficial impacts on autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction and performance. High intensity telecommuting (> 2.5 days per week) had a beneficial impact on reducing work-family conflict but at the expense of relationships with co-workers. This second wave of work-life integration fostered a series of new organizational policies and cultural norms. Organizations set limits on telecommuting frequency, tolerance of childcare responsibilities while working and expectations on availability. Whether through formal training or personal experimentation, employees found ways to define work time when working outside of the physical office (Hilbrecht, Shaw, & Johnson, 2008; Hill, Ferris, & Martinson, 2003; Tietze, 2003), such as setting aside a designated work space, limiting chores or entertainment distractions when working and dressing for work and following a routine that delineated their work and home life.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Telecommuting: A form of remote work in which organizational employees work from other physical locations. Telecommuting offers a degree of flexibility in where work is completed but may or may not involve flexibility in terms of time.

Boundary Integration: Employees assimilate their work and personal time and have both flexibility and permeability. Boundary Theory originally defined boundaries as lying on an integration/segmentation continuum.

Physical Boundary: Work is assigned to a particular location. When the workplace is a separate location from the home there is an obvious physical boundary. Some telecommuters designate a part of their home as a workspace to create a physical boundary.

Temporal (Time) Boundary: Work is assigned to designated days and times. When an employee consciously stops checking email at 7 pm or on the weekend, they are enacting a temporal boundary.

Permeability: The extent to which an individual integrates the obligations from one role when in the other role. Permeability may differ for the home and work boundary. A permeable home boundary means work responsibilities can intrude on personal time whereas a non-permeable home boundary means work tasks are limited to work time. A permeable work boundary is where personal communication/tasks intrude on work time.

Flexibility: How much control an individual has over when and where work is completed. Generally flexible schedules have resulted in positive outcomes.

Communicative Boundary: Setting availability expectations, communicating them clearly to colleagues/clients and family/friends and confronting violators.

Work-Family Conflict: Occurs when an individual experiences incompatible demands between work and family roles, causing participation in both roles to become more difficult. Researchers have examined the time, strain and behavioral dimensions of work-family conflict as well as directionality (home ® work and work ® home). It is associated with negative outcomes, such as stress, burnout, lower organizational commitment and intention to quit.

Behavioral Boundary: Acting in a way that enforces a boundary between work and home. Behavioral boundary tactics include using technology to automatically alert clients/co-workers to unavailability and deferring non-critical tasks and communication to work time.

Boundary Segmentation: Employees separate their work and personal time and have little flexibility and permeability. Boundary Theory originally defined boundaries as lying on an integration/segmentation continuum.

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