An Essential Foundation for Working From Home: Boundaries - Tips for Individuals & Employers

Updated: Apr 20




Recent studies point to some interesting data about gender and preference differences in remote work situations. Additionally, the once scoffed at practice of working from home is now a prime-time global discussion due to the current pandemic. A recent study by Eddleston and Mulki (2017) sheds some light on this phenomenon now in the spotlight. Per the results of the study:


Briefly:

1) Many employers believe that allowing employees to work remotely will result in decreased productivity. In fact, at least for remote workers, the opposite appears to be true.


2) Workers may desire to work remotely based on an expected increase in work-life balance but come to experience a decrease instead.


3) Strong work-family integration (WFI) can be especially harmful to male remote workers in work-to-family conflict (WFC).


4) Strong inability to disengage from work can be especially harmful to female remote workers and increase WFC.


5) Women prefer more integration of family and work boundaries while working remotely.


6) Men prefer less integration of family and work boundaries while working remotely.


7) Understanding and enacting individual boundary preferences can greatly reduce WTC.



WFI: Work-family integration (reducing/blurring boundaries between work and family)


WFC: Work-to-family-conflict (work encroaching on family life)


FWC: Family-to-work conflict (family encroaching on work)


What Employers Can Do (1 of 3):


  • Employers can help provide by providing resources and even training on how to effectively identify and enact personal boundary preferences (i.e. desired degree of work-family integration or segmentation) and to gain a sense of boundary control).


In other words, when work and family are integrated throughout the day, male remote workers may have poorer performance and more conflict. On the contrary, work and family integration throughout the day can be beneficial for female remote workers. However, the inability to disengage from the work role when needed can cause more conflict for female than male remote workers.


Interestingly, working solely from home (remote workers) encourages “over-working“ and infringement into the family role. However, the same phenomenon was not found in those who worked from home sometimes (teleworkers).


Much of the work-to-family conflict can be alleviated by enacting individual boundary preferences. Women prefer more integration of family and work boundaries while working remotely (i.e. doing housework and attending to family needs during breaks, lunches, etc). However, men tend to decrease work-to-family conflict by increasing the segmentation of boundaries (i.e. completely separating work from housework and family duties).



Understanding, respecting, and enacting these preferences are especially important if multiple individuals are working remotely in the same household. The inability of individuals to control their work-family boundary in a way that suits their preference plays an important role in increasing WFC and FWC.


Eddleston and Mulki (2017) also found that both males and females have difficulties disengaging from work. Although, females were more likely to mention the problems managing both family and work demands and seemed to be more affected by not being able to disengage from work. Heavy involvement in work was also shown to put a greater stress on family engagement for women than men.


Recap:

  • Women in the study seem to benefit from and even prefer, blurry boundaries (i.e. integrating work in family roles). Men saw this integration as contributing to WFC and prefer more defined boundaries.

  • With remote workers, work is more likely to encroach on family, than vice versa.


LOSS OF CONTROL AND FEAR OF EXILE


While previous research found that remote working reduces WFC, this more recent study found the opposite. Workers facing increasing expectations to be “always available“ at home have their boundaries blurred and feel a loss of control due to overlapping roles (Eddleston & Mulki, 2017). In fact, one respondent in the study described how he feels “chained to” his home computer, afraid to step away and even use the bathroom.


Remote working may promote a sense of flexibility and mental equilibrium regarding work and family, but at the cost of creating strenuous expectations on both sides from work and family. In fact, those working from home may feel more tethered to their work than they do when actually in the office.



Additionally, remote employees face fear of being overlooked and left out (i.e. exiled) (Halfermalz, 2020). This is especially important to understand for those remote workers who feel “chained to their computer “ and also have a supervisor who assumes: employees generally dislike work and avoid it whenever possible. Employees with this combination of perceived “always available“ and a micromanaging supervisor, can face especially intense WFC.


What Employers Can Do (2 of 3)

  • Identifying those employees who are both highly skilled and highly motivated

  • Create an action plan between those individuals and their supervisors that strikes an effective balance between control and autonomy.


HR and other leaders in the workplace can help reduce this conflict in many of its workers by identifying those employees who are both highly skilled and highly motivated. These are the employees that are most negatively impacted (as is their performance and thus the department performance) by the ill-lensed micromanager. After identifying those who are highly skilled and highly motivated, HR and other leaders can create an action plan between those individuals and their supervisors that strikes an effective balance between control and autonomy.


THE CATCH-22


This fear of exile combined with ever-increasing means of connecting parentheses (and thus surveillance) can create a catch-22 scenario. Technology creates a means of connecting remote workers and also means of controlling them (Eddleston & Mulki, 2017). In response to perceived overexertion of control, remote workers become reluctant to use the very technologies meant to connect them and allow them to perform. This fall-back results in feelings of exile, increases the supervisor's perception that the remote worker is not productive, and thus greater attempts at control ensue, exacerbating the situation.


What Employers Can Do (3 of 3)

  • Encourage supervising styles that emphasize commitment, trust, and engagement

  • Create Communication Pledges


The action item here for HR and organizational leaders is to encourage supervision styles that emphasize commitment, trust, and engagement. Supervisors and employees can let technology do what it is supposed to do and begin to think differently about their relationship.


A communication pledge (see template below) can act as an ice breaker and open the possibilities for a more effective relationship. Effective remote working relationships provide the trust, autonomy, and communication necessary for employees to work in the best interest of the organization even went out of sight (Sewell & Taskin, 2015).


The Communication Pledge

(to be used during a 1-1 meeting with any two people who will be working together)

A Communication Pledge is based on:

a) Trust

b) Clarity (Honesty)

c) Each person believing that the other wants the person and/or project to succeed.

Steps


1. Identify what each person hopes to accomplish in the relationship.

2. Define potential challenges of working together from each other’s point of view.

3. Spell out what commitments each side is willing to make in order to develop and maintain a healthy, successful relationship.

4. Understand and discuss each other’s:

a) Priorities

b) Schedules

c) Interpersonal Style

d) Personalities

5. Uncover and discuss the dynamics of:

a) The relationship

b) Any tensions

c) Any awkwardness

d) Existing or potential synergies

6. Decide how criticisms or sensitive topics will be handled/approached.

7. How will the Communication Pledge be enforced?

8. How will a broken Communication Pledge by determined?

9. How will a broken Communication Pledge be addressed?

10. Decide whether or not to work together.

11. Summarize of the Communication Pledge.


References


Eddleston, K. A., & Mulki, J. (2017). Toward understanding remote workers’ management of work-family boundaries: The complexity of workplace embeddedness. Group & Organization Management, 42(3), 346–387. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601115619548


Hafermalz, E. (2020). Out of the panopticon and into exile: Visibility and control in distributed new culture organizations. Organization Studies, 1-21 https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840620909962


Sewell, G., & Taskin, L. (2015). Out of sight, out of mind in a new world of work? Autonomy, control, and spatiotemporal scaling in telework. Organization Studies, 36(11), 1507–1529 https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840615593587


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