Digital Brain Switch (DBS; May 2013 – August 2015) was a project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which brought together computer science and social science. It was a collaboration between Lancaster University; The Open University; Royal Holloway, University of London; and University of Kent. The project was led by Prof. Jon Whittle from the School of Computing & Communications at Lancaster University. Digital Brain Switch is one of three founding projects linked to the Balance Network, which aims to facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to research and practice relating to Work-Life Balance in the Digital Age.
Digital technologies – smart phones, email, social networking, etc. – are fundamentally changing our relationship with work. Digital technologies enable us to be always connected and allow us to work wherever and whenever we want. However, the question remains as to how digital technologies affect our work-life balance. Is always-on connectivity a good thing because it gives us freedom to work any time and any place? Or does it cause unnecessary stress because we can never switch off?
The DBS project studied the changing nature of work-life balance as a result of digital technologies. We were particularly interested in how people switch between different work-life roles – parent, spouse, friend, co-worker, manager, employee – and how digital technologies either support this or act as a barrier.
In the age of modern communications, we all switch between multiple different roles on a daily basis. And these switches can be very rapid – one minute, we might check in with our friends on Facebook; the next we switch to work email; a minute later we go to Twitter where we see both work- and leisure-related information. How do we manage these very rapid switches? Do these rapid switches cause problems that we find hard to deal with? Or have we achieved a seamless integration of work and life where our various roles can co-exist?
Over a period of 28 months, DBS carried out an in-depth study of these phenomena and developed new tools to allow us to manage switching between different roles. Some example images from our study are included below.
Our ultimate vision was to develop new tools that will allow people to better manage how they switch between different work-life roles. We sought to contribute to a critical understanding of how we manage switches between roles, and the role played in this by modern communication technologies.
We aimed to give people tools to better understand their own work-life balance and to experiment with different ways of managing their work and life. We imagined a life as an experiment application in which people can test different ways of working and, through the application, collect data over time that will allow them to choose between different working methods.
Alan has just started his own social enterprise. It is a challenging time for him, as he has to juggle various roles – businessman, husband, community champion, friend. He doesn’t have an office to go to and works from home in the kitchen. He works at all times of day, depending on what is convenient. But he also switches between multiple roles when he works – in any given work session, he might check Facebook to see what is going on in his local community, check Twitter to keep updated on colleagues, respond to many emails, and work on various project-related tasks. This is happening at the same time as feeding his kids, chatting to his wife when she comes home, and receiving personal phone calls at home during the day.
Alan worries that this kind of lifestyle is affecting his mood. He wonders if he would feel less anxious if he tried to compartmentalize his activities – e.g., by locking himself away to work at certain times and turning off his email and social networks.
Alan logs on to the Digital Brain Switch (DBS) application to set up an experiment. He is interested in measuring two variables: his self-reported mood level; and the number of times he switches between email, social networks, work and life during the day. In the experiment set-up, he instructs the DBS application to send him a notification at 10pm every day to report his mood level and switching frequency for one month.
One month later, when the experiment is completed, the DBS application produces a bar chart showing his mood level vs number of switches per day over the whole month period. From this visualization, Alan finds that he felt very stressed when he switched either more than 10 times a day, or less than 2 times a day.
He concludes that it is because when he switched only 2 times per day, he was anxious about getting too far behind in replying to people. When he switched more than 10 times, he became stressed simply because of the sheer amount of switching between his various roles. He records this finding and shares it with his friends using the DBS social features.
This life as experiment application was our vision. To achieve this, DBS carried out detailed studies with participants on how they manage their work-life balance. Data from these studies was used to define requirements for such tools.