In our complex, digitally infused lives, how do we keep on top of both our work and non-work commitments? Drawing on video diaries and interviews with 30 UK-based workers, Petros Chamakiotis, Gillian Symon and Rebecca Whiting highlight everyday hybrid and liminal practices people commonly develop to handle their work-life balance in a dynamic and creative way.
From homes to co-working spaces or coffee shops, remote and hybrid forms of work have almost become the norm. This has emphasised further intense concern about work-life ‘balance’ — to the extent that workers may be worrying as much about whether they have the ‘right’ work-life balance as they do about their work projects and families. Workers have been encouraged to decide whether they are ‘segmentors’ or ‘integrators’ and adopt the appropriate strategies to manage their work-life boundaries. Similar to recent views that propose that ‘integration’ is an inevitable part of everyday life in our digitally infused lives, our observational research suggests that our boundary management is more emergent, creative and dynamic than these representations suggest.
Why existing theories are insufficient
The digital transformation of the workplace is associated with the blurring of boundaries between work and other spheres of life. Individuals construct their own boundaries to manage this situation (usually to keep work from encroaching on the rest rather than the other way around) and deciding whether to be a segmentor or integrator may drive this decision-making. An individual with a ‘segmentation’ preference seeks to prevent the flow or mix of elements between domains, for example, restricting work communication to work hours and/or their designated office environment. ‘Integration’ allows for more flexibility and permeability, with for instance the use of a personal computer to undertake work-related matters from home. While existing research is dominated by this line of thinking, our observational research suggests that the situation is both more complex and more dynamic. Our observations led us to propose instead the concepts of ‘hybridity’ and ‘liminality’ as shedding light on the contemporary mundane everyday practices of our boundary management.
“Liminality” and “hybridity”
Hybridity (fusion) and liminality (in-betweenness) have already been studied separately in relation to digital technologies and work. Spatial hybridity alludes both to the merging of the office, home and third spaces as places of work and leisure and to the merging of our on- and off-line lives. Temporal hybridity merges the times of work and leisure so that, for example, leisure may take place during the weekdays and work in the evenings. Liminality is a process of ‘backgrounding’ or suspending spaces, tasks or practices so they are not quite in either the work, the family or the leisure sphere. Often this is at a time of transition or to maintain ambiguity about practices. The daily commute is a good example of a liminal space where we are transitioning between work and non-work lives and not quite in either.
In our research, we have emphasised human agency and flexibility in moving between hybridity and liminality as a way of managing work and wider life demands. Our insights emerged from daily video diaries kept by 30 UK-based knowledge workers, both employed and self-employed, and elaborated through follow-up interviews.
Our analysis identified a variety of mundane practices that constitute different ways in which hybridity and liminality were flexibly (co-)produced in a creative way. Whereas in some cases this interplay enabled desired boundary work, as judged by the participants, it also engendered problems, undermining desired boundary work in their eyes.
First type of outcome: desired boundary work is enabled
Hybridity and liminality here are mutually enabling: Hybridity may enable liminality by creating ambiguity and invisibility, allowing creative boundary work, while through its properties, liminality may enable the emergence and maintenance of hybridity in a controlled way.
For instance, one participant, Pari, was seen in a recorded video placing her phone on her desk at work, but, as she later explained to us, on silent — in a liminal state of both on and off — which enabled hybridity in the sense that she could monitor her social life while at work, and choose whether to answer or not (enact the hybridity or not).
In another example, liminality hid hybridity. David recounted how he drafted emails during the evening, but only sent them the next day, so as to not create expectations about being available for work at night. The emails, produced but not sent, were in a state of temporal liminality, and David thus managed his visibility, giving the impression of having boundaries and maintaining control over his own time.
These findings highlight the creative and agentic aspects of Pari and David’s boundary work. While digital technologies may provide the possibility of hybridity and liminality, it is individuals’ creative enactment of this possibility that constitutes boundary work.
Second type of outcome: boundary work is undermined
When individuals are not in control of hybridity or liminality, either because of technology or because of the interference of other people, their boundary work is undermined.
Examples include Liz describing how she had fallen into the habit of logging on to her computer at night while watching television, “just mucking around with emails” and eventually concluding it was a “waste of time” as she neither achieved work nor enjoyed her television show. With the goal of hybridity (merging work and leisure), she found herself in a liminal state where she was neither fully at work nor fully at leisure. Once she had realised this, she gave up trying to do the two things at once.
Another participant, Cressida, explained how on one occasion she found herself suspended between domestic and work responsibilities (in a liminal temporality) as she attempted to work on her laptop while waiting for a heating engineer who was due to visit her at home. She found she could neither properly concentrate on work, nor feel as if she was engaging in homemaking or leisure. External forces then may affect how we can proactively use liminality in our boundary work.
As we see, the creative use of hybridity and liminality does not always lead to desired boundary work outcomes. We suggest that hybridity works best when paired with an effective, but not overwhelming element of liminality.
From this research, we suggest that individuals take time to pinpoint how they are (perhaps unconsciously) using the ideas of hybridity and liminality in their own boundary work, enabling insights into their own everyday practices. Our research has highlighted the importance of creativity and improvisation in the use of digital technologies for effective boundary work outcomes. Consequently, rather than aiming for ‘perfect’ boundary management, a goal that is often unachievable and can lead to anxiety, individuals should consider how to use hybridity and liminality in ways that work for them on a sustainable basis as part of everyday boundary management.
- This blog post is based on Agentic interplay between hybridity and liminality in contemporary boundary work, Information Systems Journal.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
- Featured image provided by Shutterstock.
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