November 2018: Research Update
Are You an Integrator or a Separator?
I was recently at a session on distributed work at Spark Festival. Lindsay Holmwood was also on the panel and I really like how he applied the idea integrators and separators to remote work. The idea of integrators and separators comes from research on how people manage their work-life boundaries generally¹, so it’s not specific to remote work but it might have special relevance for people who work from home.
Integrators are people who are happy for their work and home life to blend together without fixed boundaries. An integrator is probably happy to check their work email while they’re on holiday or take a work call while they’re walking the dog. They might love the flexibility that comes from being able to pick up the kids from school then catch up on work after dinner. Separators, on the other hand, like to compartmentalise work time and personal time. A separator prefers to focus entirely on work during the day, then enjoy home or family time without work interrupting².
Of course, separating work and home is more complex if you work from home! Commuting to the office provides a natural separation, after all. Lindsay gave some neat examples of how people who work from home separate work time from personal time: every morning Lindsay puts on his “work shoes” and his family knows that if he’s got his “work shoes” on, he’s at work and can’t help around the house. Another example was someone who leaves the house every morning and walks around the block clockwise before starting work. At the end of the day, they walk back around the block counter-clockwise to help mentally separate themselves from work.
How do you separate your work life from your home life? Do you have one room that you only use for work? Do you put on “work clothes” every morning, or pack your laptop bag even if you’re only carrying it to your home office? How strict are your boundaries? The fact that people embrace the cost and effort of going to a co-working space shows how powerfully important separation can be.
Most people I’ve spoken to in my research have strongly advocated for adopting a “separator” approach if you’re working from home. So far research doesn’t say that one approach is necessarily better than the other³ — but it is important that everyone has clear expectations. Neither style is necessarily right or wrong but it might be difficult for people with one style to understand the other⁴. Being aware of your style and other people’s styles can help avoid frustration and mismatched expectations (here are couple of examples of how different expectations might be set). It might be a good topic for a team meeting: what’s your style and how do you manage it? If you’re a manager or leader, it’s also important to consider what kind of organisational expectations you’re creating. Are you telling people you’re okay with them being an integrator, then expecting them to behave like a separator?
If you’d like to read more about it, this open access article⁵ goes into more depth. It’s quite long so if you’re in a hurry, read the introduction and take a look at Table 1, 4 & 5 to get a sense of what the article is about.
I’ve finished transcribing all the interviews so I’m now deep in the process of analysing the interview data. There are a lot of themes that come up in the interviews and my job is to sort through them and try to figure out which ones are important (and not accidentally discard ones that matter!), then figure out how they’re all related to each other and what that might tell us about remote work. I’ve been creating diagrams of how all the themes connect together that would give a data visualisation person heartburn. But hey, at least they make sense to me! :-)
Feel free to reach out if you have any comments or questions: email@example.com
² There’s (inevitably) a lot more complexity to it than that — Ellen Kossek writes about integrators, separators and cyclers (who switch styles when necessary). There are also some interesting ideas around the balance or symmetry of interruptions — are you a separator who is more okay with home life interrupting work than work life interrupting home, for example?
³ With the caveat that I haven’t come across research that applies work-life boundary concepts to remote working (yet).
⁴ Lindsay mentioned some research suggesting that integrators are more accepting of separators’ approach than vice versa. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the research.
⁵ Alternate link for the article here.