Creativity Greenhouse: Digital Epiphanies

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: UCL Interaction Centre


The advances in technology in recent years have had many positive effects on the ways in which people can combine work and personal life. For example, being able to access email via a smartphone means that many can work from home, or work a flexible work pattern that successfully fits around caring responsibilities. However, the resulting "always-online" culture in which people expect almost instant responses to email messages, brings stresses and strains to those who feel under pressure to respond immediately and be available on a 24/7 basis. The default settings on many smartphones mean that owners of such devices are frequently alerted by beeps and vibrations to new messages via an array of communication channels. Such irresistible interruptions result in friends and family complaining that the smartphone owner is not always mentally present despite being physically present. Such situations are so common that the term 'Crackberry' has entered common parlance to refer to the excessive use of the Blackberry smartphone by its users. In addition to supporting modern work-life balance practices, new technologies and their specific design characteristics therefore also present challenges for those seeking an acceptable or satisfactory work-life balance.
Despite widespread and proliferating debates about the impacts of digital technologies on work-life balance, few empirical studies have explored how these technologies are being used and what impact their use is having on people's work and personal lives. This project seeks to enhance our understanding of the paradoxical and double-edged effects that new technologies and digital practices are having on work-life balance through two central objectives.
First, it will explore the impact of a range of digital technologies and practices on work-life balance across a range of individuals and households. We will investigate: How are people using smartphones, tablets and desk-based computers at home and at work, and how can these technologies both support and challenge people in creating and maintaining a satisfactory work-life balance? Are new technologies having negative effects on work-life balance? What technological and other strategies are people developing to manage these effects, and how successful do they feel they have been? Are people seeking to change the ways in which they use technology, and balance work and life, in response to perceived negative effects? What events and epiphanies in their lives cause them to actively change their digital and work-life practices and behaviours? And to what extent are some people seeking to change their practices in search of 'simple, sustainable and slow living'?
Second, the study will test whether existing technologies can be used to support and enable reflection on technological and work-life practices, and to bring about sustainable changes in practices. We are interested in exploring people's awareness and behaviours in relation to both their general technology practices (e.g. what percentage of their work time is spent on what they may regard as 'non-productive' activities) and their specific practices with regards to their email habits (e.g. when, where, and how often they check email). We will investigate whether and how existing software tools can promote deep reflection on time usage and work-life balance issues, and how such technologies may be used to induce what we are calling 'digital epiphanies': moments in people's lives where they pause to reflect on and seek change in their work-life balance and digital practices. We will also implement new tools that aim to support new email habits such as checking for new messages less frequently and reducing the number of messages composed and sent with the aim of providing respondents with a greater sense of control over their digital practices and the perceived expectations of others regarding immediate responses. This may in turn have a positive influence on work-life balance.

Planned Impact

The Digital Epiphanies project will have primary impact on the immediate volunteers in the study. Through participation in the study over time, they will gain more awareness of how to use technology effectively to manage work-life balance issues, and give input into the design of tools and methods that support their needs. This can lead to reduced stress and improved quality of life.
More broad impact, occurring beyond the initial year feasibility study, will be on the wider working population.

This feasibility study can lead to further work developing a suite of tools and methods to support insight into and management of work configurations and practices. These have the potential to spread through the wider population, through a combination of active dissemination (eg through partnerships with press organisations) and viral dissemination through word-of-mouth. Again this can lead to reduced stress and improved quality of life in the wider working population. This can in turn lead to indirect benefits, by making small contributions towards improved productivity from a less stressed population, improved family relationships and improved social cohesion.

Companies and public sector employers may also be potential future beneficiaries. They may choose to disseminate such tools within their workforce in support of wellbeing programmes aimed at improving employee loyalty and retention.
National and local government may also benefit, as this can make a small contribution in support of their health and well being strategies and targets.


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Bradley, A (2013) How to Manage Your Inbox: Is a Once a Day Strategy Best? in Proceedings of British HCI'13

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Brumby, D (2013) Too Much Email, Too Much Checking in Habits in HCI Workshop Proceedings, British HCI'13

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Cecchinato, M. (2014) "I check my emails on the toilet": Email Practices and Work-Home Boundary Management in Sociotechnical Practices and Work Home Boundaries Workshop, MobileHCI'14

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Collins E (2014) Switch on to games: Can digital games aid post-work recovery? in International Journal of Human-Computer Studies

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Collins E (2015) Out of Work, Out of Mind? Smartphone Use and Work-Life Boundaries in International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction

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Collins, EIM (2014) Out of work, out of mind? Smartphone use and work-life boundaries in Sociotechnical Practices and Work Home Boundaries Workshop Proceedings, MobileHCI'14

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Cox AL (2013) Digital Epiphanies: how self-knowledge can change habits and our attitudes towards them in Habits in HCI Workshop Proceedings, British HCI'13

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Fleck, R (2014) Balancing Boundaries: The Role of Technology Boundary Work in Managing Work-Life Balance in Sociotechnical Practices and Work Home Boundaries Workshop Proceedings, MobileHCI'14

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Mauthner N (2018) Connecting Families?

Description Our research explored the positive and negative impacts of technology on work-life balance. We explored how personal informatics technologies can provide insights into how people spend their time and give them new insights into their work-life balance. We demonstrated the impacts of different strategies for managing email on productivity - you really will be quicker at your email if you minimise the number of times you check it. We identified the strategies employed by users of technology to help them maintain work life boundaries. These include: having a number of email accounts, a number of email apps or clients and using devices for a single life sphere (ie home or work). We also found preliminary evidence that
Exploitation Route There are implications for owners of technology who might be able to adopt these strategies, and also for organisational policy. An increasing number of organisations are adopting a Bring Your Own Device policy that encourages workers to use their own personal devices for work purposes. These policies can have detrimental effects on seperators - those who prefer to keep clear boundaries between their life spheres
Sectors Other

Description The findings from our work have led the development of guidance for users of mobile technology who wish to regain control over their device use. This guidance has been delivered via workshops and a booklet that is available to download.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Other
Impact Types Societal