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Caught between family life and the spreadsheet

Study examines what suffers when you work from home


Woman turning around from computer to talk to playing kids at home.
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February 01, 2022

Donna (not her real name) is the communications director for a major Valley nonprofit. Her husband is a master electrician and works outside the home.

During the pandemic quarantine, Donna had her two children — a 3-month-old daughter and 4-year-old son — at home. Work continued apace, but not without its challenges.

Donna was spit up on during Zoom calls (it was visible). There was a diaper blowout. She ended up getting a camera cover so she could nurse during meetings and “not have to resign my job in shame.” She turned to virtual backgrounds so people couldn’t see the destroyed house and the pillow fort behind her.

“Kids don’t really care what’s going on when they have a need,” she said. “I had to learn how to make it work.”

A new study from Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business confirms what Donna learned: Switching attention from work to family is difficult.  

“Why we thought that (the study) would be important is that cognitively, the work and family tasks can be completely different,” said Marcie LePine, an associate professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship and co-author of the study. “So switching between similar tasks wouldn't be that detrimental, but switching between very cognitively different tasks, we thought it would be quite detrimental for individuals. That's what we found in the study as well.”

That difficulty of switching from the spreadsheet to changing diapers and back again is called cross-domain attention residue. In the past, it's only been looked at within the work domain, according to LePine.

“What we've seen is that if you are highly engaged in that work task, we think of engagement as a good thing. But the detrimental side of that when you're switching to another task is that you continue to think about that original task because you were so engaged with that.”

Donna sometimes had to go online late at night to get work done. She isn’t sure she could have sustained the dual challenge of a young family and a fast-paced job without the support she had from her managers. “I’m fortunate we have leadership that’s very supportive of the dynamics of family and working from home,” she said.

Half of the study looked at family supportive behaviors on the supervisor side.

“These family supervisor or family supportive behaviors are really important,” LePine said. “They're essential so that individuals are able to focus better and manage those transitions between work and family.”

It’s important for supervisors to remember that employees need time for recovery. Not emailing them or asking questions during downtimes like weekends helps with regrouping.

“If I need some schedule flexibility, or maybe I just need some emotional support for what's going on with my family, I think it's going to help on that end,” LePine said.

It wasn’t all a nightmare for Donna. She witnessed a lot of her daughter’s firsts that she missed with her son because he was in day care. And her son learned how to make a sandwich.

“Now he’s in kindergarten and he makes his own lunches for school,” she said.

The study – “When Work and Family Collide: The Impact of Cross-Domain Attention Residue and the Buffering Effect of Family Supportive Supervisor Behaviors on Work-Family Conflict and Work and Family Performance During COVID-19” – was co-authored by LePine and Soohyun Yoon, a PhD student in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship. It was published in the Academy of Management Proceedings.

Top image: Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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