Remote work has blurred the line between work and home life, but experts suggest understanding your employees preferences can help to set important boundaries.
When laptops and mobiles became commonplace in organisations a tether was created between work and employees’ home lives. As technology improved, that tether became stronger.
As early as the 1980s, scholars foresaw that a lack of clear boundaries between work and personal life posed risks. For those working face to face with clients, employees were encouraged to form strict boundaries to avoid clients eating into their personal recharge time. But for many the boundaries are less easy to identify.
In a 1988 paper, researchers Douglas T. Hall and Judith Richter argued, “A boundary does not necessarily mean a solid wall… a split-rail fence does not totally cut off two yards from each other, but it does demarcate private spaces.”
Today, our private lives and workplaces are more intermingled than ever. With flexible work likely to become a workplace norm, it has become harder for employees to spot the boundaries between the two.
What are integrators?
The rise of working from home has led to new ways of working and new classification around how employees work best. One popular theory divides workers into integrators and segmentors.
Integrators enjoy combining their work and private lives. Organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson describes integrators as people who fluidly move between work and home without negatively impacting either.
“An integrator is someone who might take a work phone call while at a football match on the weekend and not feel like they’re being interrupted,” she says.
“They might do a seven-day work week quite happily, for certain periods, because they borrow from one area of life to the other.”
Ferguson says some people might be integrators due to anxiety. She refers to this as a “chaotic integration”.
“These are people who just can’t put their work down and might spend unhealthy amounts of time thinking or worrying about work.”
What are segmenters
Segmenters try to split their home and work lives completely. In extreme cases, Ferguson says they can have tunnel vision which can be frustrating for those around them.
“I have a peer who can segregate brilliantly. He shuts off from the family, goes into a room, and doesn’t even hear the four kids because he’s completely absorbed in his work. It drives his wife crazy because he’s completely shut off, but it works well for him.”
Some segmentors can be quite ardent in their split by avoiding social engagements with colleagues or refusing to use workplace childcare facilities.
For some, segmentation is about where they put their focus. If they work best by focusing on one task then everything else can become background noise.
This is where they differ from integrators who can flit between two tasks or aspects of their life without detriment to the other.
Most people, however, fit between these two types. Referred to as ‘cyclers’, these people might be integrators during the week and segmenters on the weekend. They might not mind a late call on a Tuesday, but you won’t hear from them until Monday if you email them on a Friday night.
Finding your fit
Ferguson says integration and segmentation is closely aligned with personality types.
Professor Karin Sanders from the UNSW Business School says our personalities are part of how we work, so employees should be empowered to learn about their personalities and where they fit in the ‘big 5’.
“Personality is who you are and who you are is how you work,” says Sanders.
“When you work more at home, the borders between work and life become less thick. And if you are really organised, or if you score high on neuroticism, you might struggle accepting the weakening of that border. So you need to understand your personality type to understand how to stay productive in an environment that might not be right for you.”
When employees are integrators and able to move between work and life, they might not need to be in front of the computer for the full work day as they make up their hours at other times.
Alternatively, segregators might be the most productive during certain hours and not as flexible to working overtime.
A 2012 paper from US social scientist professor Ellen Ernst Kossek suggests organisations should not only offer formal workplace flexibility but, more importantly, perceived boundary control. Kossek’s research found those who felt they had greater control over the boundaries between their work and personal life also felt a higher level of psychological job control.
To understand what kind of boundaries employees seek, Kossek created the WorkLife Indicator which measures how different employees let their work and personal life interrupt each other.
Though she says tools like this can inform managers and leaders on how their employees like to work, employees should ultimately feel empowered to speak up.
Ferguson says leaders can take a proactive step by trying to understand their own ways
of working. She says when managers model boundary setting behaviour employees are more likely to follow suit.
“Be aware of the style of worker you are and communicate that if you can. It’s important for managers to understand their own work styles because it will build a more productive workplace when people are working in a way that suits them.”
AHRI’s resource centre is packed with research to help leaders make the right decisions for their employees. Head to the AHRI website to find out more.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 edition of HRM Magazine.