Blurred Roles: When Home and Work Overlap

Published: May 09, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory

The accounting profession characterizes these past few weeks leading up to tax day on April 15 as crunch time—working ’round the clock to get the job done on deadline. Employees in a variety of professions are all too familiar with this reality; massive projects that begin to dictate time management, blurring the lines between work and home.

Tracy L. Dumas, a visiting assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, recalls her own experience with a consulting and survey research firm, when her 9-to-5-work schedule became increasingly elusive. “Our big crunch time came every year when we surveyed AT&T,” explains Dumas. “It was a massive operation. Our company recognized that we were all stressed out and working long hours and responded by buying us dinner and providing this vast array of juices and beverages, everything we needed. The message this sent, in my opinion, was that my company expected me to be at work. The result was that we spent more and more time there. I knew that I was going to eat dinner at work and I was going to be there on the weekends.”

When Dumas entered her doctoral program, crossing from the work world into academia, she began to contemplate work-family policies from a more scholarly perspective. “I began to recognize in looking at other organizations and organizational policies that many of them foster integration [the blurring of work and nonwork roles] as a solution to managing multiple roles, as opposed to trying to help people segment [separate work and nonwork roles],” notes Dumas.

Dumas used these observations, coupled with discussions and pertinent data from colleagues and coauthors, Nancy P. Rothbard of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Katherine W. Phillips at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, to write “Managing Multiple Roles: Work-Family Policies and Individuals’ Desires for Segmentation.” This research, which explores in part how people manage the boundary between work and nonwork roles, was published in Organization Science and was selected as one of the top 20 nominees out of more than 2,000 papers in North America and Europe for the prestigious annual Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family Research.

As a backdrop to their research, the authors discuss the “Integration-Segmentation Continuum,” which clarifies the nature of the boundary between work and nonwork roles. “Segmentation refers to the separation, whereas integration refers to the overlap between work and nonwork time, artifacts, and activities (Nippert-Eng 1995),” write the authors. “For example, whereas those who integrate more (i.e., integrators) might display pictures of children prominently in their offices, those who segment more (i.e., segmentors) would be less likely to do so. Likewise, whereas integrators might take extra work home, segmentors would be more likely to complete extra work only in the workplace.”

Using survey methodology and a sample of 460 employees working at a large U.S. university, Dumas and her coauthors contribute to the existing research about the boundary between work and nonwork roles first by examining the extent to which individuals desire to integrate or segment their work and nonwork lives. “Employees have clear preferences for managing their boundaries in a particular way,” notes Dumas. “There are people who are clearly integrators and people who are clearly segmentors.”

With both approaches in mind, Dumas and her colleagues examine the fit between individuals’ desires for integration/segmentation and their access to work-life policies, such as onsite childcare and company flextime, that facilitate boundary management. In the end, more policies may not be better in terms of commitment and job satisfaction.

“When the company’s values and the employee’s values don’t fit, then it has an impact on how the people feel about the organization, specifically an impact on job satisfaction and commitment to the organization,” explains Dumas, noting, for example, that people who want more segmentation are less satisfied and committed to the organization when they have greater access to integrating policies like onsite childcare than when they have less access to such policies. Conversely, the authors conclude that people who want greater segmentation are more committed when they have greater access to segmenting policies like flextime than when they have less access to such policies.

Helping employees balance their work and nonwork lives can be a challenge, especially, Dumas points out, because factors like an employee’s gender or whether or not he or she has children are not clear predictors of work-family policy response. The takeaway from this research for companies is grasping the importance of examining the fit between organizational policies and employee desires. Very clearly, one size does not fit all. “Companies need to make sure that employees don’t feel that the organizational value system and culture system is going to privilege someone over someone else in terms of this value regarding segmentation and integration,” says Dumas. “Companies should think strategically about how to communicate to employees that they respect their choices for how they want to manage the boundary between work and nonwork roles. That may mean providing a cafeteria of options, but a cafeteria that clearly gives choice. People also feel that even if a policy is available, it’s not always OK to use it. Managers should communicate that it is OK to use these policies.”

Since the publication of the high-profile work-family analysis, Dumas and fellow Goizueta faculty member, Jill Perry-Smith, have been working on a follow-up study that explores policies that affect the boundary between work and nonwork roles. In this paper, which they will present this summer at the Academy of Management Conference, they study whether or not temporal flexibility policies, such as flextime and leave policies, really help people to focus and concentrate and remove interruptions the way companies hope they do. This research has been nominated for the best paper award in the Academy of Management Conference’s Organizational Behavior division.

Dumas has become quite passionate about providing insight on managing multiple roles in the workplace. “It was an honor to have made it through the rounds with our first paper to be in the top 20 for the Kanter Award,” she says. “My colleagues and I will continue to consider these and other issues with respect to how individuals and organizations enact the boundary between home and work.”


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