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Baylor's Emily Hunter Helps Set Smartphone Interruption Boundaries

May 22, 2017

Consider these scenarios.

You’re focused on an important project at work and your phone rings. It’s your spouse.

You’ve just finished dinner with your family and you’re cleaning up the table. Your phone buzzes. An email from your boss.

Are these interruptions of your work and family time harmful or helpful?

Yes and no, according to a new study from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. The study, published in the Journal of Management, analyzed daily diaries kept by 121 employees, who agreed to log their activities for 10 days as part of the research. Each participant worked at least 35 hours per week during traditional business hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and was in a committed relationship, living with a spouse or partner.

“Our results demonstrate that the effect of interruptions in the work and home domains are twofold: On one hand, they may lead to unwelcome consequences, including obstruction of goals, negative affect, decreased satisfaction with investment in work and family and work-family conflict,” researchers wrote. “On the other, greater integration of work and family may afford workers increased positive affect, as these interruptions help them meet certain work or family goals.”

Emily Hunter, Ph.D., Baylor University

Emily Hunter, Ph.D., associate professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, served as lead author on the study. She said technology is blurring the boundaries between work and family, and this can have daily consequences on workers.

“When you give to one domain, you must take from the other. There are only so many hours in the day,” Hunter said. “Interruptions from family ‘take’ from work in the form of work goal obstructions, negative emotions and lower satisfaction with investment in work.”

She said that proper planning could turn these interruptions into benefits that help employees meet work and family goals.

The study shows that boundary violations at work were relatively common, and the researchers suggest managers and employees seek strategies to actively manage work and family boundaries.

“For example, employees could set aside specific times in their workday when they invite and initiate communication with family, such as lunch time or a midafternoon break when their children arrive home from school,” researchers wrote. “In this way, they allow their work boundary to be permeable to family violations at certain times while setting limits on family interruptions that would otherwise interfere with workflow. Not only does this minimize work goal obstruction, but it also may generate positive outcomes for their family members.”

When work invades family time, employees can use that to their advantage as well, Hunter said.

“Workers who work from home in off-job hours can also benefit from managing co-worker expectations about availability after hours, setting aside time after children go to bed to accomplish work tasks with minimal obstruction to their family role and setting limits on hours of smartphone use for work purposes,” she said.

In the study, researchers suggest workers request that coworkers or supervisors contact them after hours using communication mediums with varying levels of urgency: emergencies only by phone call or text message whereas matters that can wait until morning via email.

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