Have you ever checked your work email from bed, fielded a client call from the carpool line, or missed an event due to work demands and deadlines?
Welcome to the borderless, technologically enabled, always-on world of 21st-century “knowledge work.” The McIntire School’s Suprateek Sarker, Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Eminent Professor of Commerce, studies the social impact of this intersection between people and technology, particularly as it applies to the global, distributed professional-class workforce. “To understand what happens, you need to understand not technology alone or people alone, but how the two interact,” says Sarker.
And if technology undeniably plays an essential role in enabling many benefits of contemporary work and life, it also indisputably has a way of commandeering and consuming our time and attention through “all our gadgets that make it possible to be ‘on’ 24/7,” Sarker says.
Examining this tension, Sarker, who also serves as President of the Association for Information Systems, and colleagues at the University of Louisville, Lund University in Sweden, and Copenhagen Business School in Denmark collaborated on a combined case study and series of interviews of IT professionals within globe-spanning multinational companies—people Sarker describes as “highly ambitious, high-performing knowledge workers.” The researchers sought to explore the nature of work-life balance (WLB), as well as work-life conflict (WLC), within these distributed workforces, but also to ask more fundamental questions, beginning with the challenge of actually defining “balance.” Their findings confirm that while it’s increasingly challenging within knowledge-work fields like IT to maintain boundaries between “work” and “life,” at the same time, there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all approach to WLB.
“Balance” Can Mean Different Things
In the book drawn from their studies, Navigating Work and Life Boundaries: Insights for Distributed Knowledge Professionals, the researchers state as their premise “that WLB is desirable and the consequences of high WLC are likely to be negative.” But what is WLB? The concept “has been treated too simplistically,” says Sarker. “In the past, we tried to think of WLB as one homogenous construct for all of us, and that needs to be revisited.”
To a degree, the idea of balance “depends on the individual person,” Sarker says, and their own perspective on “what work is and what life is.” It might also be relative to your actual work. “Let’s not assume that knowledge workers and factory workers share the same concept of work-life balance,” Sarker says.
Thus, for some, balance can mean a perfect equilibrium between two opposites. Your work life stays inside designated boundaries—the classic “9-to-5” scenario—and your outside-work life does too. Balance can also be seen as a kind of “joint optimization,” as Sarker describes it, where both work and life are perceived as complementary and dynamically interconnected. Another way of seeing balance is “compromise,” in which you accept some trade-offs in return for other benefits. Sarker points out, for example, that WLB might be a luxury not everyone can afford to prioritize. In a developing country, an IT job with a U.S.-based multinational might be a life-changing opportunity worth considerable sacrifice in other parts of your life. “If you are a brand-name company like Google, Microsoft, or Amazon, you can get a lot out of those folks because that job is very significant in their lives.”
Everybody’s Balance Is Different
Sarker and his collaborators found that the way research subjects described their own WLB tended to fall into three categories. “Compartmentalizers” were those 9-to-5 types, the ones who were firm in keeping the domains of work and life distinct and separate.
“Overlappers” were the most common group; these were the people “who want to keep life and work separate, but understand they overlap,” says Sarker. If you’re an overlapper, you’re flexible with shifting work demands, and responsive to incentives, like a bonus or that trip to Hawaii, to compensate for some sacrifice of personal time.
Finally, “encompassing” people “have lost all track of what is work and what is life,” says Sarker. The Elon Musks of the world, extolling the virtues of “hardcore” commitment and sleeping in their offices, certainly fit this category, but you’ll find them everywhere in knowledge-work professions, from Wall Street to Main Street to, yes, the halls of academia. “We used to joke that we are writing about WLB because we have none,” admits Sarker.
Your style doesn’t necessarily remain consistent across your career span either. A young, single, early-career go-getter might enthusiastically go full-encompasser, but parents of young children might feel the need to pull back, or a mid-career reassessment might lead to a radical change. Sarker cites one extreme example of a consultant who quit to become a farmer in rural Korea, but stories are ubiquitous of the executive who pivoted to life coach or the engineer who opens a cupcake bakery.
A Bad Fit Leads to Conflict
Those kinds of dramatic shifts are often driven by WLC, the feeling that the balance you want and need is out of sync with the balance you have—whether from work demands intruding on your outside-work life, stress from work negatively affecting your personal life, or the work you do no longer fitting with the life you want.
The researchers apply “border theory” as a way of thinking about both WLB and WLC, where “work” and “life” are like two bordering countries. But for global IT workers, the authors write, those borders are also literal, as they interact and collaborate with colleagues both locally and around the world, and thus “find themselves constantly crossing borders not only between work and life but also within their work domains.”
A key border that emerged in their research as a not-insignificant driver of WLC was simply time of day. It’s one thing to be an overlapper and compromiser willing to work late; it’s another to have half your team half a world and a dozen time zones away. It might be midnight in Manhattan, but it’s already morning in Mumbai, and Slack never sleeps.
As Sarker and his co-authors write, “The high demands of the modern globalized economy cause significant conflicts between one’s work and life domains, which are unavoidable.” Or, as Sarker puts it, “A question that appears reasonable when you are having your morning coffee might not when you are going out for a beer at 6 p.m. on a Friday evening.”
Flexible Schedule Pitfalls
It sounds like a great idea: Give people the freedom to set their own schedules, and they’ll find the WLB they need. Certainly, flexibility and autonomy are preferable to rigid and uncompromising mandates. But in their study, says Sarker, “flexibility in schedule drastically reduced work-life balance.” The reason? “Because of the global nature of knowledge work, if you give flexibility, it becomes that you are available all the time, anytime.”
The pandemic, of course, accelerated that blurring of lines. When COVID struck, for knowledge professionals the boundaries between work and life, office and home, and business and personal all dissolved overnight. Now “work” has become a hodgepodge of every kind of arrangement, from fully remote to hybrid to choose-your-own-schedule to full return-to-office. Even within your own home, you might have kids, spouses, roommates, and adult children all on their own distinct work or school schedules.
“All these different people have different cycles of work-life balance, and it is a mess,” says Sarker.
Technology, of course, is what makes such all-the-time availability too easy. The pings, the emails, the midnight “insight” from the client five time zones away, all arrive courtesy of that electronic umbilical cord that none of us seem able to cut. In that sense, knowledge workers might be their own worst enemies.
“From a work standpoint, the expectations are increasing—‘You are connected, so why can’t you do it?’” Sarker observes. But on the other hand, he says, knowledge workers, many of whom fall in those overlapping and encompassing categories, don’t know where to stop, and the technology is designed to make continuing all too easy. “Professionals are feeding on their own compulsions,” he says.
Businesses Can’t Ignore WLB
Nevertheless, WLB is an issue companies can’t afford to disregard. Traditionally, WLB has been seen as the individual employee’s responsibility, with the emphasis more on keeping your life out of your work than on keeping your work from intruding on your life. But in high-demand professions like IT, burnout and WLC affect mental and physical health and therefore the productivity of your workforce. Emphasizing WLB also is a way of heading off WLC before it leads to dissatisfaction (such as the so-called quiet-quitting epidemic) or actual turnover. And IT talent seeking new positions are now more often explicitly asking about company WLB policies too. “Today’s companies are very conscious of their WLB reputation,” Sarker says.
Unfortunately, just as there is no one kind of WLB, neither is there a good one-size-fits-all WLB policy. “You need to protect the compartmentalizer from the encompassing manager,” Sarker says, but at the same time, “if you try to treat the encompassing people as if they have boundaries,” that won’t succeed either.
But Maybe the Battle’s Already Lost
Ironically, “there is some research that trying to be too WLB-oriented can create its own stress,” says Sarker. “In trying to create that balance, you can make it worse.”
Instead, Sarker and his co-authors say, IT and other knowledge workers “are recognizing the futility of separating their work and nonwork domains.” The new keyword, then, isn’t work-life “balance”; it’s work-life “integration,” write the authors, “such that separate accounting of time, psychological involvement, or effort dedicated toward work and nonwork activities would not remain feasible or even meaningful.”
Call it surrender. Call it Generation Overlapper. There’s no going back to 9-to-5 in a 24/7 world.