In this article, we consider how employees maintain work-life boundaries with regard to workplace communication. This is important for health and well-being because, with technological changes, they can potentially receive workplace emails whatever the hour.
The ubiquity of the (work-supplied?) smart phone, increased amount of working from home, and the rise in pan-global connections has brought this issue to the fore. Impact on employee well-being is a key concern and many are seeking to find best ways of handling the challenges of 24/7 communication connectivity. In this paper we consider research-based evidence on two key questions:
- How does unrestricted work-related communication connectivity affect employee well-being? What negative and/or positive effects does it have?
- What factors influence the type of impact this connectivity has?
The impact of 24/7 communication connectivity
There are widespread concerns about the potential negative impact of work intruding into personal life because of the difficulty of ‘switching off’ when away from the office. Research has shown that these concerns are genuine, and the table below lists some of the different negative impacts that have been identified, along with indicative comments from employees.
However, not all the impact of 24/7 communication connectivity is negative; on the contrary, research evidence shows that there are many positives. The following table lists some of the different positive impacts that can occur, along with illustrative comments from employees.
These two tables demonstrate that there can be conflicting perspectives on the impact that technology brings to the management of the work-life boundary. What factors, then, give rise to these differences? We turn to that next.
Factors affecting employees’ reactions
Norms and expectations
A major factor influencing the impact of 24/7 communication connectivity is the norms and expectations that affect the employees. Company policy on flexible working is a major influence of course, but the expectations of departmental colleagues or workplace teams can also have a significant impact.
For instance, the researcher Melissa Mazmanian investigated a team of seven lawyers who all had very strong interpersonal relationships, spending time with each other outside of the office as well as at work. Perhaps because they knew each other so well, they each assumed that others would be communicating out of hours to a similar extent to themselves.
As the months went by, the amount of time they each spent reading and sending emails out of office hours increased steadily, so that after one year, each lawyer was upholding an expectation that they would each be available online 15-16 hours a day. They started resenting this, but despite discussing it explicitly, were unable to lower that. Somehow, the dynamics of the group had resulted in norms and expectations that they did not want. In contrast, Mazmanian reports that a sales team at the same company had a completely different experience. This group of people travelled very extensively but came together for regular meetings. They formed strong friendships at these events and engaged in late night socialising together. However, they held very different attitudes towards out-of-hours emailing, some positive towards it and others less so. They were aware of that there was a range of views, and so held no particular expectations of others. They felt no pressure to handle emails out of hours in any set way, and instead developed a shared understanding that each sales representative would handle 24/7 communication connectivity as suited them best.
Roles and role identities
Another factor that can influence the way in which people manage the continuous availability that smart phones provide concerns employees’ roles and role identities. For instance, Mazmanian reports that the lawyers saw themselves as ‘client-service-oriented’, and when asked to describe the qualities of good client service, they mentioned the following:
- Being accessible for enquiries
- Being pro-active about potential issues
- Being responsive to client demands.
They regarded email as the principal channel through which they could accomplish this good client service. Partly as a result, they spent more and more time online, so that their sense of identity was not undermined.
In contrast, the sales representatives saw being a good salesperson very differently – as entailing freedom, flexibility, and personal connections with clients. They regarded themselves as independent and autonomous agents and were happy for each individual to decide how best to handle their communication connectivity. This contrast in perceived role identities was also exacerbated by the economic nature of their respective roles. The lawyers played an overhead function in their company, not bringing in money directly, while the sales representatives were revenue drivers. The lawyers thus felt constrained to meet others’ expectations (internal and external), so that their contribution could be appreciated by management, while the sales representatives felt confident in the economic importance of their jobs and were less vulnerable to pressure from others.
Personal preferences for boundary management
A further factor affecting the impact of 24/7 connectivity is personal preferences. Cognition and culture researcher, Christena Nippert-Eng, argues that individuals’ preferences for managing the work-life boundary vary on a continuum. At one extreme are ‘segmenters’ who prefer to keep the two domains separate, while at the other extreme are ‘integrators’ who prefer to dip frequently in and out of the two domains. ‘Integrators’ tend to exhibit high boundary control in that they pro-actively decide when they will switch between domains. ‘Segmenters’, on the other hand, tend only to engage in work-related communication out of hours when they feel obliged to do so. They are more subject to pressure from others, and thereby exhibit low boundary control.
This notion of boundary control was found to be important by Piszczek. In his research he found that people who pro-actively crossed the work-life boundary when they wanted to (rather than when they were obliged to) were less emotionally exhausted from engaging in out-of-hours communication than those who felt compelled to respond to a work-related communication need. In other words, high ‘integrators’ with high boundary control typically experienced low levels of emotional exhaustion by dealing with communication demands whenever they wanted, while high ‘segmenters’ with low boundary control experienced high levels of emotional exhaustion from responding to pressure from others.
Key Takeaways and Implications
On the basis of the above, we can identify the following key takeaways:
- Individuals vary in their attitudes and preferences towards work-related out-of-hours communication. This affects how emotionally exhausted they become from managing this aspect of the work-life boundary.
- Employees who like to keep work and personal life separate (known as ‘segmenters’) experience greater emotional exhaustion from boundary crossing than those who are happy to switch to and fro (known as ‘integrators’).
- Company policies need to take this into account and allow for that variability. In other words, policies should neither force ‘integrators’ to segment, nor ‘segmenters’ to integrate. Rather, they should allow variability.
- Employees are not only affected by company policies in their handling of the work-life boundary but also by group norms; i.e. by the communication patterns and expectations of those they work closely with, such as team or department members.
- ‘Segmenters’ are usually significantly influenced by group norms and may therefore feel more pressure to engage in work-related communication out of hours.
- ‘Integrators’ tend to pro-actively decide when they wish to cross the work-life boundary and are less influenced by group norms.
- Employees’ perceptions of role identities – i.e. what it means to be a ‘good employee’ in a particular role – may lead to high levels of boundary crossing, and for ‘segmenters’ this can result in high degrees of emotional exhaustion.
- Senior managers need to take all of the above factors into account when planning their policies and implementing their management practices.
Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey
 Key studies were:
Mazmanian, M. (2013). Avoiding the trap of constant connectivity: when congruent frames allow for heterogeneous practices. Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1225–1250.
Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (2013). The autonomy paradox: The implicationf of mobile email devices for knowledge professionals. Organization Science, 24(5), 1337–1357.
Nippert-Eng, C. (1996). Home and Work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Piszczek, M. W. (2017). Boundary control and controlled boundaries: Organizational expectations for technology use at the work–family interface. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38, 592–611.
ter Hoeven, C. L., & van Zoonen, W. (2023). Helping others and feeling engaged in the context of workplace flexibility: The importance of communication control. International Journal of Business Communication, 60(1), 62–83.