Work life balance signpost. Image credit: Thinkstock

How do we manage work-life boundaries and whose responsibility is it?

With digital tools and technologies making it all too easy for us to switch between home and work life with the touch of an app or the ping of an inbox, how do we manage the boundaries? And whose responsibility is it?

Transferring from home to work life and back again was a longer process before we had access to modern digital technologies, says the OU’s Dr Helen Roby, of the Digital Brain Switch project. “Before, we’d transition physically by getting dressed into work clothes and doing the commute into work, but with more flexible home working, and access to email at any time of night or day, the working day can start the minute you open your eyes and check your inbox. Now we decide how often and for how long we switch in and out of work mode, it happens online rather than physically, and we can move from one role and back again without realising it.”

Digital Brain Switch logoEmployers too play a role in ensuring colleagues aren’t overwhelmed by thinking they need to be online all the time, and completing work tasks in their own time. We now have to negotiate how we work online and how we manage expectations on both sides, and not undermine the decisions we’ve made. If you decide not to check your work email at weekends, you should stick to it and not feel pressured or obliged to.

But it’s not as easy as that, particularly when digital devices contain all that’s needed to conduct personal and professional tasks – who can resist peeking into a bulging inbox in the evening when the email app sits next to the Facebook app? Is a full weekend of digital detox required to truly get a break from work?

The Digital Brain Switch project examined these rapid switches between roles and tasks over two years, with 45 UK-based participants – either social entrepreneurs, office workers or university students – recording video diaries when transitioning from one role to another using technology.

The research was conducted by Helen Roby at The Open University alongside colleagues from Lancaster University, University of Kent and Royal Holloway, University of London and sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Data from the project is now being analysed, but three key points involving our digital lives arose from the video diary footage the researchers received.

1) Digital housekeeping

Digital housekeeping, like physical housekeeping, are tasks that need to be done but go unnoticed, they’re invisible to others and go unrewarded in our working lives – the time spent connecting to the office, synchronising devices, setting up online meetings etc. Should this be more explicitly recognised by employers or is there a price to pay for being able to work flexibly?

2) Digital identities

With online boundaries between work and life unclear, people now grapple with private and public identities online. Can you be yourself on all online media? And if organisations require us to tweet and blog, how much of ourselves are we exploiting for business benefit?

3) Digital presence

How long are people spending online and why? A fear of missing out came across in the video diaries – people logging on to make sure they’re up to date, keeping them online for longer than they planned. What will happen if you’re not online? It’s not just a personal issue, for some it’s related to the nature of our work and goes beyond personal responsibility.