Take-home Technology: Is it the Scapegoat for Reduced Work-Life Balance?

It may be obvious for those reading this blog from a laptop/Blackberry in front of the TV or in the airport departure lounge, but using work technology out of office hours (take-home technology) can impact work-life balance.  A recent study by Park, Fritz and Jex (2011) suggests that using take-home technology impacts an individual’s ability to detach from work and consequently their wellbeing. Countless studies and anecdotal evidence also indicate a relationship between low work-life balance and fatigue, less positive work experiences, and lower overall life satisfaction. Does this mean we should be banning take-home technology to improve our work-life balance?

Not just yet say Park et al. (2011). Take-home technology appears to be just one contributor to the increasing lack of work-life balance. Other contributing factors like work-home segmentation preference and workplace segmentation culture may actually have a bigger impact on work-life balance.  Work-home segmentation is the degree to which people prefer their work and home lives to operate separately. Some people have a strong need/motivation for this, while others may be comfortable blurring the boundaries between work and home life. Workplace segmentation culture is the expectation (implicit or explicit) set in place by the organisation around acceptable work-life balance. These norms convey how expected or appropriate it is to work from home, attend evening functions or to call colleagues at home or work weekends.

Park et al. (2011) expected take-home technology to be a major factor in lack of work-life balance. However, work-home segmentation and workplace segmentation culture had the greatest impact on detachment from work, with take-home technology just exacerbating this relationship. For those who prefer to separate work and home life and/or those who feel they are expected to work from home, technology may make their existing feelings of low work detachment appear more prominent.

So, if banning technology isn’t the answer to work-life balance, what is? Park et al. (2011) suggest that identifying and addressing an individual’s work preferences may be part of the puzzle. Identifying those who prefer to keep work and home separate and helping them to physically and mentally detach from work may be valuable. This could include making changes to role design and workload. Addressing an individual’s ability to deal with ruminating thoughts, develop end of the day rituals, establish boundaries and take an action-focused approach to problems may also help.

Exploring the culture operating within a workplace may help gauge how appropriate it is for employees to detach from work. By understanding the organisation’s philosophy around take-home technology and asking the following questions, the value of a segmentation culture can be ascertained.

1)      Is this expectation of work-life balance required of everyone?

2)      What message is this level of work-life balance sending?  To current employees? To future employees?

3)      Is it contributing to business effectiveness (remembering that lack of work-life balance can impact on engagement and satisfaction as well as hard costs like turnover and absenteeism)

4)      Can we strike a balance between effectiveness and wellbeing for those who need to use take-home technology?

Improving work-life balance isn’t as simple as putting take-home technology on a “black list”. It involves exploring each individual’s workplace needs, understanding organisational culture and developing targeted solutions to enable people to “switch off” from work. However, “switching off” from technology from time to time may not be a bad thing either!

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