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The Science Behind The Strategies

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In order to be productive we have to be able to do two things: focus on our work when we are working and relax after work to recover from the day. If we are unable to focus on our work we are unable to get anything done. Being unable to recover properly from the stresses of the day has a negative impact on our ability to be productive the next day. And so it goes on.

Many people are finding focusing on work and relaxing afterwards difficult at the moment. It can be difficult to work from home if you are surrounded by distractions, whether these are from the people and pets that they live with, the fact that there are lots of home-related jobs to do, or that their devices are constantly sending them notifications. Others who live alone might feel distracted through the day by a desire to connect digitally with people whilst in lockdown.

Communication technologies are increasingly embedded in our everyday lives, impacting how we work and socialise. This can create expectations of endless availability which may lead to issues of work-life balance. Research has found a positive correlation between work interrupting non-work and stress, and if no measures are put in place to recover from our daily worries and stresses, other major health issues can arise, such as burnout.
Therefore, achieving work-life balance is an issue that concerns many. A key factor to reaching this goal is feeling in control. With notifications interrupting and information overload overwhelming us on all our devices, it can be hard to feel in control.

We have been researching how people cope with work-life balance issues and the expectation of being always online. Our findings show that technology should be designed to be more in line with our values and make us stop and think when this is not the case. But it’s not all down to technology – individuals play a key role in managing their own work-life balance. We found that there are workarounds and strategies that people can put in place to make technology work for them, to align digital behaviours to personal values so we can be in control of work-life balance. These are microboundary strategies.

Microboundary strategies (Cecchinato et al., 2015, Cox et al. 2016, Cecchinato et al. 2017) can be used to limit the negative effects of boundary cross-overs (e.g. receiving a work email on a weekend) and feel more in control. When we feel in control, we experience less stress and we fewer interruptions between work and non-work.

People can also find it difficult to relax after work when the computer they have been using for work sits in full view as a constant reminder of work. You might be worried if you have found it difficult to focus on work and have not got as much work done as usual. In addition, many people are experiencing increased levels of stress as a result of worries about their health, or that of their friends and family.

In order to focus on and disconnect from work at the appropriate times, we have to exercise self-regulation. Self-regulation, or self-control, relates to both our behaviour and our emotions. Self-regulation of behaviour is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. Self-regulation of emotion is the ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down.

In our research we have explored how people can use technology to help digitally self-regulate their behaviours and their emotions to help themselves remain productive.

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Research that has informed our recommendations

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Cecchinato, M. E., Cox, A. L., & Bird, J. (2017, May). Always on (line)? User experience of smartwatches and their role within multi-device ecologies. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3557-3568).

Cecchinato, M. E., Cox, A. L., & Bird, J. (2015). Working 9-5?: Professional differences in email and boundary management practices. In Proceedings of the 2015 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3989-3998).

Cecchinato, M., Fleck, R., Bird, J., & Cox, A. L. (2015). Online vs. Offline: Implications for Work Identity. Between the lines: Re-evaluating the Online/Offline Binary: A workshop at CHI’15.

Cox, A. L., Gould, S. J., Cecchinato, M. E., Iacovides, I., & Renfree, I. (2016). Design Frictions for Mindful Interactions: The Case for Microboundaries. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1389-1397).

Fleck, R., Cox, A. L., & Robison, R. A. (2015). Balancing boundaries: Using multiple devices to manage work-life balance. In Proceedings of the 2015 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3985-3988).

González, V. M., & Mark, G. (2004). Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness: managing multiple working spheres. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120).

Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 220-228.

Li, I., Dey, A., & Forlizzi, J. (2010). A stage-based model of personal informatics systems. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 557-566).

Mark, G., Iqbal, S. T., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., Sano, A., & Lutchyn, Y. (2016). Email duration, batching and self-interruption: Patterns of email use on productivity and stress. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1717-1728).

Newbold, J. W., Luton, J., Cox, A. L., & Gould, S. J. (2017). Using nature-based soundscapes to support task performance and mood. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2802-2809).

Nippert-Eng, C. (1996). Calendars and keys: The classification of “home” and “work”. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 563-582). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.

O’Hara, K. P., Massimi, M., Harper, R., Rubens, S., & Morris, J. (2014). Everyday dwelling with WhatsApp. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing (pp. 1131-1143).

Olson-Buchanan, J. B., & Boswell, W. R. (2006). Blurring boundaries: Correlates of integration and segmentation between work and non-work. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68(3), 432-445.

Rector, K., & Hailpern, J. (2014). MinEMail: SMS alert system for managing critical emails. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 783-792).

Turel, O., & Serenko, A. (2010). Is mobile email addiction overlooked? Communications of the ACM, 53(5), 41-43.