The boundaries between our personal and professional life seem to be increasingly blurred and permeable. The way in which we manage the passage from one domain to another is known as Boundary Management (Rothbard & Ollier-Malaterre, 2016). This concept reflects on whether or not we tend to mix our personal and professional lives, how we manage the transition from one role to another, and what decisions we take in order to adjust our day-to-day life to our preferences.
This topic is becoming increasingly relevant, both on a theoretical and practical level, due to the impact of information technologies that enable us to jump from one role to another with ease —answering WhatsApp from friends or family at work, or checking work mail at night from the couch at home, for instance. It is also influenced by changing values regarding how we integrate the different domains of our lives and, more recently, by the impact of the pandemic crisis, which has brought school, work and family together in one space.
History of work and family in four stages
The way in which we manage space and time on both personal and professional levels has changed throughout history. In the Middle Ages, for example, work and family lived together in the same space: the countryside. With the advent of the industrial revolution, we moved to the opposite scenario and a clear differentiation between public and private, personal and professional, spaces. The third phase began in the 1960s and 70s, with the incorporation of women into the paid labour market. Finally, the fourth phase began in the early 21st century, with the democratisation of information technologies that allowed personal or work issues to be managed anywhere and at any time.
This fourth stage is settled with the irruption of the health pandemic, which has implied a return to an almost complete permeability of the different domains, without necessarily sharing a single space.
Job profile: segmentation or integration?
How do we navigate between our personal and professional lives? How does mixing the two fields or keeping them separate affect us? What is the best solution? In an interesting study, Nippert-Eng (1996) described two major methods of management: segmentation or integration. According to the author, integrators are those who don’t mind solving a personal problem from the workplace (calling the doctor or paying bills), nor do they mind finishing work at home. Integrators tend to have photographs of their family members at the workplace, and reports and materials from work at home. They bring professional and work contacts together in a common agenda and encourage each other to go out for drinks with colleagues.
Segmenters, on the other hand, like to keep family and personal issues out of work, and work out of the home. They separate their roles well. If they can, they use two diaries, two mobile phones, and do their best to avoid permeability between roles.
Is there any way to act more efficiently than another? Not in principle. What’s relevant is that there’s congruence between personal preferences, behaviour, and the personal-organisational fit. Let’s have a look at these models one by one.
The stages of professional…and personal efficiency
- The first interesting step is to be aware of personal preferences. Do we prefer to integrate or do we prefer to segment? It is necessary to know ourselves well. Companies must also have a good understanding of the personal preferences of their employees. Are there more integrators or segmenters in the staff? There are questionnaires and tools that can help in the analysis.
- The second step is to examine our behaviour. Do we really integrate or segment? A certain consistency and coherence between our preferences and our behaviour is most desirable to avoid high levels of conflict. Segmenters who integrate suffer; integrators who segment suffer as well.
- The last step is to analyse and encourage a good match between the organisation and the employee, known as person-organisation fit. (Rothbard, Phillips, & Dumas, 2005). Empirical evidence shows, again, that there’s no strategy better than another. What’s really important is that there is a good fit between the type of policies the company offers and the ways to segment/integrate employees. If the majority of employees are integrators, policies such as teleworking, workplace childcare, or flexible working hours make sense. If, on the contrary, there are more segmenters in the organisation, it’s necessary to think of other types of policies, one of which could be intensive working hours, also in a telematic fashion.
Therefore, and especially in these times of blurring boundaries between our roles and job profiles, it is essential to continue thinking, reflecting and acting in order to best manage the way in which we efficiently address our wide range of roles.