Digital technologies have undoubtedly revolutionised our work lives, ushering in unprecedented levels of productivity, wealth and job creation (Tapscott & Caston, 1993). However, beyond this utopianism, digital technologies, which have changed the world so profoundly, are also collapsing the boundaries that once separated our personal and professional lives, often without our consent or knowledge.
Work-life balance, which is “the individual perception that work and non-work activities are compatible and promote growth in line with an individual’s current life priorities” (Kalliath & Brough, 2008) is essential to a happy, healthy and productive life. It is not only important for people, governments and businesses also recognise it as essential for better health, business performance, lower attrition rates, and much more.
New research shows that digital workers, particularly the burgeoning group of freelancers and solopreneurs, need new strategies and tools to create and maintain the boundaries that support a healthy work-life balance (Jones, Burke, & Westman, 2013). This will ensure workers are in the best possible position to produce consistent high-quality work, and the highest level of attention that can be applied to our personal lives is maintained and enhanced despite our ability to be constantly connected.
Listen to our interview on the future of work with Erica Keswin
Digital Distraction and the Unification of Personal and Professional Life
Smartphones, mobile devices, laptops and other digital devices allow us to access personal and professional information quickly and easily. The space between the professional and personal aspects of our lives becomes compressed and fluid. Where the office was commonly the designated space for work, that could be left behind once work was finished, is now not the case. It is just as easy to lose yourself, if only temporarily, on the activities of our friends, as it is to lose ourselves in the demands of our work-related emails. Similarly, it is just as easy to read a book with our children on a mobile device and then divert our attention to the email notification from our colleague. People often send work and personal emails from the same platform, or use the same device to check a spreadsheet and then reply to a notification that you’ve been tagged in a photo with a friend. In this way, our personal and professional worlds constantly merge.
Some have welcomed this flexibility, claiming that constant connectivity allows them to be more productive. But the data does not bear this out. By now, we are all familiar with the illusion of multitasking (Rose, 2010), but it also appears that the collapse of boundaries by digital devices further fragments our attention, meaning that we do not bring our best selves to work and to life more generally (Salvucci, Taatgen & Borst, 2009). Maintaining a healthy work-life balance becomes difficult to maintain, because it requires constant awareness and willpower (Leroy, 2009), both of which are finite. They require considerable energy reserves that could otherwise be put to living a good life, and in order for recovery from work to be effective, an individual must experience psychological detachment from work.
With the research around the effect of the blurring of personal and professional boundaries in its infancy, maintaining our work-life balance in an age of constant connectivity is challenging. However, there are some useful tools and tactics we can use to re-establish greater work-life balance:
Personal Informatics: Personal informatics, commonly used in the Quantified Self movement, refer to the use of digital apps or tools to monitor how we spend our lives. By using technologies that reflect our personal information back to us, we can become more aware of how we spend our days and the quality of our personal and professional lives
Mindful Settings: The team at Time Well Spent have presented the idea of consciously moving away from the default settings on our devices so we are more deliberate in our interactions with technology. For example, a mindful smartphone might include a tools-only home screen, using clear and unambiguous vibrations, knowing which apps encourage constant checking from you. Jocelyn Glei, in her new book Unsubscribe, also talks of moving away from the default settings on email and calendar programs so that we become more productive, creative and less stressed.
Managing expectations: Placing ‘Out Of Office’ notifications and even wearing external props such as headphones and hoods, are shown to be effective mnemonics to notify other people that they were not to be disturbed, although it’s unclear how popular this will make you in the office!
Analogue Devices: Other strategies in use by people concerned about their work-life balance is the use of analogue devices. Using devices such as a real alarm clock, for example, reduces the need to check your email or other digitally related content upon waking. Reading real books does not allow your attention to waver from incoming notifications, or to submit to the temptation of falling down the rabbit hole of hyperlinks ‘just to find something out’.
While tech and work-life balance research is still in its infancy, our understandings of work-life balance are undoubtedly changing, while our psychological and physical need for respite, recovery and transition from the professional to the personal, and vice versa, remain. In a constantly connected society, remaining aware of the ways humans best thrive personally and professionally in an age of constant connectivity will be of great importance.
Kalliath, T. and Brough, P., 2008. Work–life balance: A review of the meaning of the balance construct. Journal of Management & Organization, 14(03), pp.323-327.
Leroy, S., 2009. Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), p.168-181.
Rose, E., 2010. Continuous partial attention: Reconsidering the Role of online learning in the age of interruption. Educational Technology Magazine: The Magazine for Managers of Change in Education, 50(4), pp.41-46.
Salvucci, D.D., Taatgen, N.A. and Borst, J.P., 2009, April. Toward a unified theory of the multitasking continuum: from concurrent performance to task switching, interruption, and resumption. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1819-1828). ACM.
Tapscott, D. and Caston, A., 1993. Paradigm Shift: The New Promise of Information Technology. McGraw Hill, Inc., Professional Book Group, 11 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.