You answer a phone call at the office from the plumber working on your kitchen sink. You leave a meeting to respond to a text from the caregiver that your child has a mild fever at daycare. Your spouse emails you about the invitation for the family gathering this weekend imploring you, for the third time, to respond.
What do these three vignettes have in common?
First, they all involve non-work matters being dealt with at work.
Second, all three involve varying degrees of cognitive-emotional energy. Is my child ok? Should we take her to the doctor? Is there another leak in the kitchen? How much will the repairs cost? I forgot about the reunion this weekend!
Third, each scenario involves a transition. A movement away from one train of thought into another.
It is this transition that social scientists have coined a 'cognitive role transition'. Research analyzing traditional boundary theory published by Smit, Maloney, Maertz Jr., and Montag-Smit studied effects of cognitive role transitions in 619 employees totaling some 4,371 transition episodes. What these researchers found was that, somewhat unsurprisingly, cognitive role transitions between work and home impair job performance. The more time an employee is focusing on things outside of work, the less time they are cognitively and emotionally present at work.
However, what the study also unearthed was that the most effective way to combat these transitions is a measure of integration between work and home rather than segmentation. In essence, thoughts from outside of work are always going to seep into the cognitive 'work-space'. Additionally, the study also determined that employees who are able to address family matters at work have a greater resilience to cognitive transitions and maintain a higher level of job performance than those employees who are restricted from doing so. Instead of isolating family and work, which may perpetuate a thought in our mental and emotional background that grows into a worry until we get home, address it!
Practically, instead of fighting the impulse to answer that text or planning how to sneak away from one's desk to take that call, use that energy to address the issue so that one can transition from family back to work. One of the implications of this new research is that employers should allow employees the space to be present at work and also at home. Blurring the traditional boundary of the office as an escape from home life may prove to be more productive rather than dimish productivity. So the next question is, how?
First, employers should check if there is the ability for employees to work from home a segment of the time they physically spend in the office. In addition to reducing office costs, working from home allows employees to work and address personal matters in a dualistic fashion.
Second, make answering that text or checking in with a caregiver easier not harder. Allow the space for employees to answer those matters without feeling shame from the office culture. Consider open offices or spaces where people can have personal discussions in the workspace.
Third, be flexible as a manager. Listen to your team and find ways that allow work-family transitions to occur in alignment with team culture. Not only will employees enjoy working more, but your team will become more cohesive.
Rethink the traditional work - family binary. Doing so will add value to your team.