Work and Family in the Mobile Enterprise: Reflections on Priorities
“Whoever is dialing in from Disney World, please mute your phone.”

So began a company conference call I was on several years ago while on winter vacation with my family. As my wife and kids rode the Mad Hatter tea cups ride, I was able to deal with the latest company "crisis" … from the convenience of Magic Kingdom. And the ability to be accessible anywhere, anytime is magic indeed.

But not always.

In 1977, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a business professor at the Harvard Business School coined the phrase “the myth of separate worlds,” thereby quashing the proposition that “life and family life constitute two separate and non-overlapping worlds.” Even in those days before email, the internet and mobile phones, the convergence of home and work was already a fact of life. But never before has the fusion of home and work life been as intense as today.

Negotiating the Work - Home Balance

A recent Academy of Management Review article lists the forces that are driving work and personal lives together, including the spread of communication technologies. One proud worker quoted in the article told researchers:

With my cell phone, two-way pager and Palm Pilot, I can work anywhere. I’ve worked escalations in Disney World. In fact, I can remember exactly where I was because it made such an impression on me … So the kids are going down the whatever and I’m on the phone with an engineer talking to him about a problem with a storage array.”

The article entitled “Shattering the Myth of Separate Worlds: Negotiating Nonwork Identities at Home” goes on to present strategies that workers are using to reconcile their home and work identities. Taking the findings of the article at face value, our prospects seem grim. Of the four strategies presented by the authors, three entail reconciliation on the part of workers; reconciliation of misalignments between work and home pressures. The fourth "alignment" strategy is basically to make your personal life your work life. One such “happy” worker quoted in the paper had this to say:

I was working sixty to seventy hours a week. I was Little Miss Career. I worked myself into being an expert on my product line and traveled .... I’m not a homemaker by temperament, I don’t have any friends in the neighborhood. All my friends are worker bees [at my work], and I love my work too.”

More on Little Miss Career in a bit.

Time to Realign Priorities

A 2011 Organization Science article entitled “Email as a Source and Symbol of Stress” found that today’s communication activities create stress and anxiety, in part because they introduce a loss of control. Email, phone calls and text messages continue to pile up before we can react. Anxiety arises from contemplating the prospect of falling behind or missing important information.

The study concluded that “new patterns of work days create unrealistic expectations about response time,” further adding to stress. The result is that we work longer and check messages more frequently; often from the time we wake up until we go to sleep.

But is this aligning of work and home lives a good solution? Well here is something to think about. When our Little Miss Career got fired from her job, this is what she had to say:

I cried and cried for days. My work wasn't just a job to me, it was my life, my blood, my sweat and tears for the past eleven years. And they took that all away with the flick of a pen. It was like going through a divorce! .... My friends, the people I care about, were back at the office wondering what the hell was going on.”

As we start into 2014, now is a good opportunity to reflect on the past year, count blessings and realign priorities. When you go home tonight shut off the work phone, disconnect from email and take solace from this: research also shows that the amount of time needed to catch up on email after a break is a lot less than anticipated.

Title image by curtis (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by David in The Changing Role of IT in a Technology World Full of Choice