How technology blurs the lines between work and home life

Posted by Professor Jon Whittle on 02 October 2015

Being always connected blurs work-life boundaries:

Technology has fundamentally changed the relationship between work and life. We now live in an ‘always on’, ‘always connected’ world. And the ubiquity of smartphones and social media has blurred the boundaries between work and life. For many of us, the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning is to grab the smartphone by our bed – which doubles as our alarm clock – and check our work email; all this before we have kissed our children good morning.

The off-switch has gone

Technology also means that our switches between work and life have become frequent and rapid. It’s no longer the case that we switch off from work when we leave the office. Rather, we go home and are constantly switching back and forth between family and work roles, dipping into work-related social media even as we are cooking dinner for our spouse.

Technology brings freedom

Yet, at the same time that technology has allowed work to creep into our home lives, it has brought great flexibility and freedom. It’s easier than ever to work from home. Indeed, in some industries, the traditional notion of a physical space where employees go to work together is an anachronism. Many software companies, for example, rely on developers who are located all over the world and may never meet face to face. Despite these advantages, however, it’s clear that most of us struggle in maintaining work-life balance; and technology doesn’t always help.

How to maintain a good work-life balance

There is plenty of advice out there for maintaining a good work-life balance. Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week, for example, recommends that you check email only twice a day. Popular websites will tell you to take regular breaks at work, exercise more, say ‘no’ to work tasks, turn off your electronic devices at home, etc. Much of this is good advice.

Our research shows that people need individual solutions – MyLifeRocket

However, in a recent EPSRC-funded study[1], in which we studied work-life balance in a range of contexts from education to not-for-profit companies to traditional corporate industries, one finding stood out: work-life balance means something different to everyone. For one person, the answer to work-life issues might be a moratorium on reading work email at home. But for another, this would be counter-productive as it would lead to worry about what emails are building up for the next day.

Work-life balance then is a highly individual concept. Still, most of us would welcome support on how to manage our work-life balance. This presents a dilemma – how can we define solutions when everyone has a different problem? To respond to this, we developed MyLifeRocket[2], a quantified-self platform that allows people to set up their own ‘hypotheses’ relating to their own situation. Users can set up their own experiments – such as ‘will I be less stressed if I stop checking email at home?’ or ‘will I be more productive if I don’t schedule meetings on a Monday morning?’ – and can collect their own data that help them resolve these questions – such as diarizing how often they check email at home versus their self-reported stress levels.

Insights from the study

In an initial study with 50 users of MyLifeRocket over a three week period, we gained insight into how such ‘lifelogging’ platforms can help with work-life balance. Even in just three weeks, many participants reported benefits. This is an important result because most smartphone apps – including those that support health and well-being – are used only for limited periods of time and are then discarded. We have shown that even short-term use can have value.

Secondly, many of the user experiments confirmed something the user already suspected, rather than suggesting radically new insights on their work-life balance. Even so, users feel empowered because the platform provides real data that gives the user confidence to take action.

Thirdly, the role of social networks in behaviour change is well known. Interestingly, given the personalised nature of MyLifeRocket, users found it more difficult to share with friends: their personal experiments didn’t necessarily match their friends’ personal experiments. This presents new design challenges in terms of how social network-based well-being apps can support personalisation.

Shaping app design with MyLifeRocket

The rise of self-tracking apps is likely to continue in the next decade. Indeed, self-tracking methods are already moving from smartphone apps and wearable devices to sensors that are integrated with the body, such as electronic skin tattoos. MyLifeRocket has provided valuable insights that will help to shape the design of these new and emerging forms of technology.

In the meantime, stop reading this blog and go and enjoy life!

VIDEO of research

[1 Digital Brain Switch website]

[2 My Life Rocket website] 

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Professor Jon Whittle
Name: Professor Jon Whittle
Job title: Head of School of Computing and Communications
Department: School of Computing and Communications
Organisation: Lancaster University

Jon Whittle is the principal investigator of the 'Digital Brain Switch' project funded by EPSRC.