Tuesday AM January 22nd, 2008

A new book suggests that cellphones, the Internet and other marvels are actually problematic when it comes to balancing work and family life...

Electronic innovations like cellphones and the Blackberry, the Internet and e-mail, wi-fi computers and other marvels are meant to free us from our work cubicles, making telecommuting and flex-time more possible. But authors Ellen Kossek and Brenda Lautsch contend in their book CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age that we are still prisoners of our own outdated mental constraints. Kossek says studies reveal that more than one out of every five people are stressed by an inability to juggle their personal lives and careers.

"For all of us now, you know, blurring boundaries between work and home is just a fact of life. With cellphones, laptops, you know, e-mail, pagers. And unless people have a definitive strategy on how they're going to manage relationships between their personal and professional life, these new technologies can actually make our lives worse. We present the idea of flexstyles, like we…balance, I think, is a good word and we're all seeking it, but it sounds like we're all on a tightrope and we're gonna fall off. So we have this idea of flexstyles, which is how we manage our relationships between work and family. And there are different patterns, and there's no one best way."

Kossek says there are factors that determine your flexstyle.

"And what determines flexstyle, which is how you manage relationships between work and home are good or bad really depends on two things—one is whether you feel in control of how you're managing these relationships. The second is this idea of satisfaction and values fit. If you're living a life where you're managing home/work relationships and you don't feel good about it, then that's also going to lead to conflict. So one person can take a cellphone call at a kid's soccer game, and feel good about it—they're a fusion lover, one of out integrator types. Another person could pick up the cellphone and feel awful about it, and they're a reactor—they feel out of control. And one of the separator styles was called ‘firsters'. And those are people who put one role—either their work role or their family role first in their life, and I thought that was really interesting that some of, you know, organize our whole day around out family life. So they're the people out the door at four o'clock to be at the kid's soccer game. But then there are also other people that are out the door right at 7 a.m. to go to work, and their work is much more important to them than their family role. And so I think it's more and more thinking about not so much about how people are different, but just how people are set up. What are the different patterns, and how people live their lives. And as you have a major life change, it's sometimes good to reassess how you're managing work/life relationships, and think about whether you're feeling good about it, and that's a good time to sometimes try and negotiate change."

There are three types of specific flexstyles.

"And integrator, or people who like to multi-task and mix work and family all day long. There are separators, and they're people who are pretty good at keeping work and family tightly separate from each other. And then volleyers have days and times of the week where they're really going back and forth between work and family. Maybe you're a travels a lot the first part of the week but then you're home working in your home office the last part, and you're a job warrior. Or other people are quality timers, and they, there's a few of us that are able to give their best to work and to family on any given day." Ed: "Tell us about the research that you had to do for the book and what you found out about the trade-offs, or the sort of compromises people made as they adjusted to these things." "Well, we started out really studying teleworkers at major companies, and what we found was that everybody was working at night or weekends or early morning. And so this idea of whether you're formally using flexibility didn't matter so much for your well-being. It was how you felt about it—whether you were in control and whether you were satisfied."

Kossek says there's no one best style. The idea is to improve your quality of life, no matter what your style.

"And there are some cost-cutting tradeoffs, and one is this idea of switching costs, and that's the idea that when we multi-task—say you're working at the computer and you take a call from your wife, you might think that it's more efficient to stop and take the call from your wife, but in fact, you may be spending longer at work because we lose focus and there are process losses as we switch back and forth between tasks. So even though I'm the prime multitasker as a mom with four children and a PhD from Yale, I feel that I've tried to set boundaries myself to have pockets of time to give my best to my job and my best to my family during any given day, and have some discussions on when are routine interruptions okay and when I can say ‘hey, can I call you back, I'm trying to finish something up?'"

Dr. Kossek is Professor of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior at Michigan State's School of Labor and Industrial Relations.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...