Socio-Technical Systems and Work-Home Boundaries Workshop, September 2014

On Sept. 23rd 2014 we held the “Socio-Technical Systems and Work-Home Boundaries” workshop during MobileHCI conference in Toronto, Canada.

This workshop was one of the outcomes of our Digital Epiphanies project, in an effort to open up the discussion to a broader range of researchers in the field of technology and work-home boundaries. Among the attendees were human-computer interaction (HCI) specialists, social scientists, and sociologists.

The workshop was divided into three parts: first, all papers were presented (see the workshop program for the list of papers), each followed by a short Q&A session.


Dr Natasha Mauthner presenting her paper, “Technology and the (re)making of work and family”

Secondly, a discussion was moderated around three broad topics:

  • Our definition of key terms such as ‘home’, ‘work’ and ‘boundaries’?
  • The methods most commonly used?
  • Non-use of technology and work-home boundaries?

Finally, the outcome of the workshop was agreed to be a special issue on Technology and Work-Home Boundaries (soon to be announced!).

The initial discussion revolved around the implications of these different perspectives for research investigating technology and work-home boundaries. This interest originated from the use of a survey published by Kossek et al (2012) as a way of measuring boundary management. However, implicit in the use of this survey is the assumption that we all adopt the same definition of the terms used: ‘work’, ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘permeable boundaries’, ‘flexible boundaries’, etc. Therefore, even though universally accepted definitions were not defined in the workshop, it was clear that researchers should not assume that their own explanation of “work-home boundaries” are matched with others. This is of particular importance when we work in interdisciplinary teams. One of the challenges for interdisciplinary collaboration is to define common grounds for research and this generally starts with an awareness of how each discipline describes key terms

Rowanne Fleck

Dr Rowanne Fleck presenting her paper, “Balancing Boundaries: The Role of Technology Boundary Work in Managing Work-Life Balance”

. As far as methods adopted, there was more of an overlap. This showed that observations, interviews and questionnaires were commonly used, especially in situ. Quantitative data was also collected (e.g. screenshots of devices) and additionally HCI researchers conducted also more controlled studies in the lab. However, more research should consider non-use of technology as an informant of how technology is interweaved in our everyday lives. Non-use of technology can refer to holidays or periods abroad, where Internet connectivity can be costly, but it can also refer to unavailability of technology. For example, Becky Faith from the Open University studies how socially excluded women use technology. Because the majority of them are homeless, they don’t necessarily always have an opportunity to charge their smartphone’s battery or put credit on it.

Natasha Mauthner, from Aberdeen University, instead talked about how young teenagers might not be allowed a mobile phone, but then are given one without a SIM card to use merely as an alarm clock. These perspectives emphasise the different reasons for non-use that particular users encounter and that need to be taken into consideration. If we only consider how technology is used to shape work-home boundaries, we might be missing out on important information provided by non-use.

It is clear the role of technology in work-home boundaries is topical and frequently discussed in popular media (e.g. For this reason the last part of the workshop was directed towards producing a special issue proposal. With such publication we hope to bring together researchers from relevant fields to contribute and extend our understanding on technology and work-home boundaries.

Marta and the Digital Epiphanies Team


In reality, new ‘flexible working’ rights could mean longer days and less family time

By Heejung Chung, University of Kent. 

This article was originally published on The ConversationRead the original article.


Flexible working time, once a perk for successful professionals, has gone mainstream. From June 30, the right to request flexible working will be extended to all workers in the UK. In a time where most benefits are being cut rather than expanded, this is a remarkable policy development.

The introduction and the quick extension of this right is mostly due to employers believing it increases productivity, while also benefiting employees. In fact, there is no lack of evidence to show the business case for the use of flexible work arrangements – such as flexitime and teleworking – in the workplace.

However, we should be cautious about extending these rights. Many people, especially small and medium sized business owners are wary of some of the costs involved and the difficulties in managing a flexible workforce. It’s obviously much harder to round up your staff when they’re scattered about and you don’t even know who is “on call” at any given time.

But exactly what does flexible working mean for employees themselves? In theory, such arrangements give employees more freedom and autonomy to fit their working world in with other aspects of their lives, most importantly family life. However, what most of us fail to recognise is the potential negative effect flexible working can have for workers.

Flexible work can mean a move from time based work (a 9 to 5 in the office, for instance) to task based work – working anywhere and anytime you want but having clearer list of tasks to complete. For some, this means workers themselves have the responsibility to set their own working hours, but this freedom could also end up with “work that never ends”.

Academics are a typical example. Most of us these days have contracts with no clear weekly working hours, nor specified holidays. However, we are given a set number of tasks that need to be done throughout the year in terms of teaching and administrative roles, and given a target to achieve in terms of published research. The problem is workers are then put in a very competitive environment and encouraged to achieve more and better outputs. More papers published, more students taught, departments run better than ever on a diminishing budget. This ends up with academics having one of the most demanding and stressful jobs with a third working 50 hours or more a week.

The problem is not just confined to academics in the UK; it occurs in high-status professional careers throughout the world. Empirical evidence has linked flexible working to longer working hours, increased time pressure and greater work intensity in other countries and other occupations.

What is more, flexibility can actually taint what is left of our time with our family. In the iPhone era we are able work whenever and wherever we want, or don’t want. Again this leads to work spilling over into our private lives. Just think about the times where you check and respond to your work emails while taking care of your children or at night in bed. Many of us end up with the idea that I can and thus I should be working right now, without ever being able to completely switch off.

We also need to think about what flexibility means when it is irreversible. For example, many companies, councils and other government offices are enforcing teleworking for many workers to cut the cost of building rents. But what happens when you want to work in the office again, when there are no offices to go back to?

The same dilemma occurs for part-time workers. Although you might want to reduce working hours while your children are young, there are no guarantees of increased hours in the future and making the wrong decision could harm your career.

The key story is this. Increased flexibility at work does allow us to do many things that were not possible before and, yes, this does have the potential to provide workers with a better work-life balance.

However, we need to be aware of the honey trap where the sweetness of freedom lures us into ever diminishing boundaries between work and life, a job that never ends, or into making irreversible decisions that have dire consequences for our future careers.

We need much more evidence on exactly when flexibility can work and for whom, and on what we can do to prevent the downside. Only then can be be truly confident that this new policy will be a success.

Heejung Chung receives funding from the ESRC. Grant ref: ES/K009699/1.



PhD Studentship Opportunity: (Dis)Connected Working: Managing Work-Life Boundaries in a Digital Economy

The Digital Epiphanies team at the University of Aberdeen have an opening for a funded PhD student

The proposed project will explore organizational policies and practices related to technology and work-life balance, and the ways in which these make possible specific ways of working, living, and combining work with non-work activities and responsibilities.

The project will take a participatory ethnographic approach, and will draw on established methodologies of action research in organizations. It will be based within a single case study organization.

The aims of the project will include:

  1. examining the ways in which government and organisational policies and practices related to digital technologies, flexible and mobile working, and work-life balance impact – often in complex, unexpected or even contradictory ways – on how employees use work-related technologies in managing work, non-work, and the relationship between these;
  2. exploring potential disparities and inequalities in access to digital infrastructure across geographically diverse areas (across the rural-urban spectrum), and their potential impact on work and non-work practices and relationship between these;
  3. proposing new ways of studying organizational policies and practices related to technology and work-life balance.

The proposed doctoral project will be supervised by Dr Karolina Kazimierczak and Professor Natasha Mauthner from the University of Aberdeen Business School, and will build on an existing EPSRC-funded study, Digital Epiphanies, which investigates interactions between work, family life and technologies in the home. The project will form part of a broader programme of research exploring interactions between technologies and social worlds across different sites (family, organization, national and international policy, popular culture).

The project is funded by a University of Aberdeen Elphinstone Scholarship.  An Elphinstone Scholarship covers the cost of tuition fees, whether Home, EU or Overseas. The deadline for applications is Friday, 6 June 2014.

Informal queries can be directed to Dr Karolina Kazimierczak at: Details of application procedures can be found at:

Project Meeting, April 2014

The Digital Epiphanies team met in April 2014 at UCL for a two day meeting. First we had an updates session in which we talked about the work we’ve been doing in recent months. One of the interesting topics that we talked about was the unintended impacts of technology. We also discussed how the affordances of technology, for instance smartphones, can dictate how productively they are used in terms of work life balance, and the issues surrounding existing terminology.

Then we spent the rest of our time working together on collaborative outputs from our research: a joint paper and a workshop. The joint paper considers the design of personal informatics tools that aim to measure productivity and support time management, and the extent to which they are effective in supporting people in gaining new insights about their digital habits. This aims to draw together the different perspectives, experiences and findings of the ongoing projects, and combine the things we have learnt from our work.

We are also planning a multidisciplinary workshop that will be held at MobileHCI 2014 in Toronto in September that will explore Socio-Technical Practices and Work-Home Boundaries. This workshop will consider how a socio-technical perspective could inform new approaches of thinking about mobile technology design by highlighting the ways in which technologies are bound with particular values and work and home practices. Submissions are open until May 30th 2014 and more information can be found here . This promises to be a very interesting workshop, and we’re hoping to attract researchers from a wide range of disciplines. We will also pay the workshop fee for up to 6 PhD students and post-doctoral researchers who have their papers accepted.

Hope to see you there!

Anna, Emily and the DE team.

Do You Work for a Greedy Organisation?


This is a reblog from Anthony Finkelstein’s blog, Profserious. The original post can be found here.

I was introduced the other day to the term ‘a greedy organisation’. Greedy organisations are characterised by asking more from their staff than it is reasonable to expect them to achieve whilst preserving their health, personal relationships, equilibrium and capacity to sustain the pace that is required. I set out below a simple 10 point test that you can apply to your organisation.

It has a ‘work-life’ balance policy but there are no management actions associated with achieving it.

Overall capacity in the organisation is limited by ‘burn out’ of key staff.

Meetings organised out of core working hours are commonplace to ensure that people can fit them in their diaries.

It makes the standard maternity, carers and parental leave provisions but … thereafter acts as if all responsibilities have been discharged.

There is no active career management because there is only a single template for a successful career.

Not only are you sent emails on the weekend but your reply is, if not expected, then at least anticipated.

There is a focus on early-career staff because greater career pressure can be exerted and more can be squeezed out of them. Similarly, short-term and limited funding contracts are used wherever possible as a strategy for maximising productivity.

Entry to the organisation is gated by a lengthy and uncertain process requiring high, and often excessive, workloads so as to habituate staff to the expectations of the organisation.

Performance management is exclusively about low achievers and not high achievers. The job descriptions and promotions criteria cover many pages of dense text.

Thank goodness universities are not at risk of becoming greedy organisations!

Is commuting just dead time?



One of my main areas of interest at the moment is the commute. Very few people have anything good to say about their journey to or from work. This is especially the case for those travelling into Central London where UCLIC is based, as this normally involves crowded, expensive and sometimes delayed public transport. While a considerable source of stress and expense, commuting is something some of us spend hours of our week doing. Not only that, but it is also the first thing we do before and after work, making it incredibly relevant for studies on work/life balance.

The main thing I have noticed from speaking to people about their commutes is that many people attempt to offset the sense that commuting is just dead time by taking part in activities that they enjoy or find useful. There are obvious restrictions in what people can do while travelling (for example, you wouldn’t be able to check your e-mails while on the underground), but individuals find ways round this and adapt their activities accordingly. For instance, speaking to one commuter who travels from the border of South London, he reported to use his time on the tube to draft e-mails that could then be sent when he was walking from the tube station once he arrived.

Although this aspect may not be a surprise to anyone who has noticed the vast number of commuters immersed in their various books or devices, what I’m mostly interested in is the possible impact of what people chose to do during their journeys. The commuter I mentioned before claimed that being able to pre-emptively begin tackling his workload meant that when he turned up to the office, he wasn’t worried about what might be waiting for him. Similarly, being able to start updating documents or reading e-mails on the way to work helped him prepare himself mentally for the working day ahead.

However, what effect does performing work related tasks on the way home have? The periods of time that segregate work and home have been argued to be really important in relation to how well people can relax once they get home, and how prepared they feel for the next day. Therefore, what we choose to do, and how well it offsets the negative experience of the commute, may have broader implications in terms of subsequent relaxation, work-stress and performance when back at work.

We plan to investigate not only what people tend to do on their commute and how this differs according to features of the journey (such as whether it’s over-ground or underground, or how long the journey is), but also the impact this has on post-work recovery, work stress and work home interference. It’s possible that working on the way home stops commuters from being able to switch off from work, and this might influence how well they relax once they get home. Conversely, the flexibility of being able to work on the journey might actually be a positive influence, as it means a few last minute tasks can be completed before arriving home, avoiding this being done once they’re with their family. Whether it’s positive or negative may depend on the person, their job, or the kinds of tasks they are performing on the journey, all of which we are planning to measure.

What we’re ultimately hoping to achieve is a better idea of whether the commute is an important time for recovering from the daily stresses of work, and if so, how it can be best utilised depending on individual factors and what kind of work you are doing.

Keep an eye on the blog for some of our preliminary findings!

Until next time! Emily & the DE team