Erosion of WLB Resulting from Mobile Accessibility
The evolving constructs of work and employment in the contemporary field of human resources management (HRM) have drawn attention to the need for striking a balance between employees’ time and attention that are devoted to work and to family and personal concerns. Employers have been convinced, or compelled, by labour regulatory and social agents to place limits on time at work for employees to have more time at home – i.e., the so-called work-life balance (WLB).
Together with developments in this arena are technological innovations in personal digital communications devices that have redefined the manner and speed in which information is acquired, processed and transferred. Mobile devices and systems, in the form of smartphones, tablets, laptops, cloud, Wi-fi, internet, etc. – have made it literally possible to gain access to anybody at any point in time and location, and to transfer and process any amount of data in any form (i.e. audio, video, texts and numbers). While the technology has made it easier by leaps and bounds to simplify the way people work, its ubiquity has however made it possible for employers to get in touch with their employees even if the latter have left the workplace (Kumari, 2017; Brown & Palvia, 2015).
Undoubtedly, connectivity has also aided work-life balance by allowing for innovative work arrangements to be worked out between employers and employees, such as work from home or flexi-time. Employers have however increasingly tended to contact their employees on matters of business after office hours or on weekends, due to the ease afforded by connectivity. Matters that used to wait until the open of business on the next work day are now immediately delegated at the press of a ‘send’ button. The effect on employees at the receiving end constitutes a serious challenge to the WLB sought to be advanced by modern HR management (Al-Saidi, 2017). This brief essay seeks to discuss the peculiar dynamics of this situation.
WLB and its benefits
“WLB refers to an individual’s ability to meet work and family commitments, as well as other non-work responsibilities and activities” (Hill, et al., 2001, p. 49). The use of the term often connotes the need to reduce or limit work in order to devote more time and attention to one’s family (Armstrong, 2016). Until the present, although studies have accumulated regarding WLB, there had been hardly any clear definition of the concept or an attempt to measure it (Talukder 2016).
A number of studies have established a significant positive relationship between work-life balance and improved HR management such as enhanced organisational commitment and job involvement (Caillier, 2012), job satisfaction (Otieno, 2010; Mukhtar, 2012), in employee performance (Sheppard, 2016; Rubel, 2014), employee retention (Hashim, et al., 2016; Deery, 2015) and so forth. Since such is the case, certainly companies should be willing to pursue WLB practices as a primary goal to effectively realise the substantial benefits to its employees, and not merely as a palliative to employee complaints. Management needs to address the unintended negative effects that mobile connectivity can have on WLB.
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‘Mobile work’ and its impact on WLB
The peculiarity of the new working arrangements resulting from the ‘mobility’ characteristic is variously referred to as teleworking, remote work, mobile work or smart working. Mobile work includes flexible organisations of time and space, as well as principles of collaboration and networking and supported by the digital tools of information and communication technology (ICT). The workspace and job environment assume a fluid, almost amorphous characteristic that it sometimes becomes difficult to define where the ‘work’ environment begins and ends – and corollarily, where ‘outside work’ does, too (Cirianni 2015).
Mobile connectivity can both help and hinder WLB, and at times where mobility is employed as a tool to enhance WLB, such as enabling women to work from home, this is where mobility also tends to encroach, ever so surreptitiously, into that balance. This phenomenon is best elucidated as follows:
“What groups and working communities do with the technologies they have available is the result (more or less happy) of the interaction between potential offered by technology, the system of social practices already existing before technology and interpretation as possible mediating role that the community of users will give to the instrument. The use of every instrument, especially the technological ones, is determined not only by the physical and technical characteristics, but mainly by the courses of action that the instrument itself is able to sustain, compatibly with the pre-existing practices, included working practices. This also explains the diversity of using the same technology in different business contexts” (Palen & Salzman, 2002, p. 15).
This statement is central to an understanding of the issue because it emphasises that the material devices and instruments that intermediate in the workplace do not create the practices, but rather such practices that have already been operational within the work contexts in which they are thought to intervene. It is an important concept to understand, because many times, it is not the office or organisation that instigates the intrusion into the employee’s life, but the employee him/herself who actively enables the interference. That being said, the actions that are fostered by such technologies during the workday tend to pervade into the individual’s well-being. In order to address and mitigate the evident intrusion of technology into WLB, management and business organisational culture will play important roles in reorienting employees’ attitudes and behaviour (Thomas, 2014; Yun, Kettinger, & Lee, 2012). The corporate culture could no longer be content with influencing how the employee behaves in the workplace, but also must now exert an active influence in ensuring the employee devotes due attention to their own home and family.
Mechanisms and solutions
In the study of work psychology, several constructs have proved helpful in identifying how the intrusion of mobile connectivity into WLB may be mitigated. In Cirianni (2015), so-called ‘boundaries,’ such as that between work and home life, are conceived as social constructs which are continuously modulated or adjusted by people depending on their perceived needs in interacting with their environment. Individuals perceive their boundaries with varying levels of flexibility and permeability (Hall & Richter, 1989) on one hand, and integration and segmentation (Nippert-Eng, 1998) on the other hand.
Boundary integration and segmentation are not two different things, but are extremes in a continuum, as they both refer to the lines of demarcation between family and work. Segmentation refers to separating work and home roles, which understandably better maintains the boundary between them. On the other hand, integration involves combining the roles to some degree, which has the advantage of making transitions between them less difficult. Integration has the disadvantage, though, of blurring the boundary between these roles, and confounding or confusing the distinction between one’s work from one’s family obligations; this is true particularly in the situation where the roles are highly integrated, such as when one works from home (Desrochers & Sargent, 2004).
Integration is made possible by the combination of two mechanisms, flexibility and permeability. Flexibility refers to time and locational flexibility where employees are allowed control over their working hours and location of work (Mustafa, 2012), while permeability of boundaries refers to “the degree to which either family or work encroaches on the other because they occupy the same place and … time” (Ashforth, Kreiner & Fugate, 2000, p. 472). Unlike integration and segmentation, flexibility and permeability are two distinctly different attributes. Flexibility is determined by the nature of the work, which determines what may be allowed or disallowed with regard to the time work is to be accomplished and in what location it may be accomplished, while permeability, where flexibility allows it, is highly within the discretion of the individual worker. Work that is highly segmented, such as the production function in a manufacturing firm, will have zero flexibility and permeability, therefore, no WLB intrusion beyond working hours. Increasing flexibility, however, will allow for increasing integration, therefore the employer should allow for increasing freedom of choice by the employee. The discretion for permeability increases with increasing flexibility; and arriving at a happy balance between both will require close communication and collaboration between the employer and employee.
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Since the fusion of mobile connectivity and working arrangements are not only inevitable but inescapable, how then may intrusion into work-life balance be minimised, if not entirely eliminated? Legislation will not only prove ineffectual but unenforceable, because what differentiates between intrusion and empowerment from the worker’s perspective is the individual circumstances of the worker him/herself. For instance, an employee with children may not welcome the 24/7 work connectivity that an unattached employee may welcome.
The key is therefore the definition of boundaries and their attributes on a personal level that should be worked into the corporate culture, as implied by Palen and Salzman (2002), Thomas, (2014), Yun, Kettinger, and Lee (2012), and other recent studies. First, the company must clearly distinguish those jobs that must be segmented and are therefore inflexible, from the jobs that are flexible and may therefore be open to special work arrangements. On this basis, the willing employee and the employer must decide on the level of integration and the specifics of the deliverables, with employee having discretion in determining the permeability of the arrangement. Where this type of collaboration is feasible and desirable, it should be worked into the corporate culture, for the purpose of attaining work-life balance.
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