Endowed professor breaks the barriers between work and family

Spring 2020

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Margaret Shaffer

Margaret Shaffer

Communication technology first gave workers the tools to stay connected to the office and be productive from home 30 years ago.

But the number of employees doing that shot up dramatically this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. A March survey of 800 global human resources executives by Gartner Inc. showed 88 percent of organizations encouraged or required their employees to work from home.

It’s new territory for millions of first-time remote workers, but not for Margaret Shaffer, a University of Oklahoma professor who researches the effects of bringing work into the family domain.

“With the virus, now you’ve completely broken those barriers between work and family,” said Shaffer, whose endowed position as the Michael F. Price Chair in International Business is supported though a gift from Price to the OU Foundation. “I don’t know how people do it with kids they are trying to homeschool or entertain. It’s really a challenge.”

Most literature on the exploding work-family interface focuses on the adverse effects of people taking their work home, Shaffer said, but her research finds some benefits for employees juggling work and family obligations under one roof.

Finding the balance comes down to expectations and relationships in both domains, Shaffer said. Understanding what your colleagues’ and your family members’ expectations are enables you to respond fittingly.

“When you are able to address your colleagues’ needs you feel better about yourself,” Shaffer said.

However, after-hours work can result in work-to-family conflict when the time and energy invested in work is seen as not spending time with family, she said.

In a 2019 paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Shaffer and three colleagues write that communication technology allows employees to be “socially present with others from any domain regardless of physical and spatial restrictions ... (but also allows) for intrusions from one domain to another, resulting in unpredictable, intermittent, and disruptive information flows between work and home.”

“It’s really important to know your own values and your own comfort levels with integrating work and family or keeping them separate,” Shaffer added.
Couples working from home can schedule times when each can be undisturbed while the other handles domestic situations. Having the flexibility to customize a work schedule to accommodate family life can be beneficial all around, she said.

A 2019 paper Shaffer co-authored in the Journal of Business and Psychology points out that “workplace flextime use can lessen employees’ cognitive failures at work and home by increasing their perceived control in both domains.”

These lapses in memory range from the insignificant – forgetting to turn off a light – to the sometimes tragic, such as cases when a parent has forgotten his or her child in a hot car.

“During these stressful times, people may experience even more cognitive failures,” Shaffer said. “Flexible work arrangements can help to reduce them.”
Shaffer teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international business and international human resource management. She came to OU in 2016 from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and taught for many years in Hong Kong.

Most of her research involves global employees. Shaffer said the OU endowed professorship has given her the time and financial support to work on research, collect data and attend conferences that keep her connected with what’s going on in her academic field.

“And I take much of what I learn back into the classroom with me, which benefits my students,” Shaffer said.