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The Online Collision of Our Work and Personal Lives: Ariane Ollier-Malaterre

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Ariane Ollier-MalaterreProfessor of Management at the University of Quebec in Montreal, where she conducts research on and teaches about work and life around the world.  Her recent work focusses on the impact of technology on our work and non-work lives.  The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: How did you get involved with and intrigued by the question of how life online collides with the rest of life?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: Ariane Ollier-MalaterrePrior to my life in academia, I was in the business world.  There I observed that, though we all have multiple identities and commitments in life, employers don’t seem to recognize or tackle this issue.

SF: What do you mean, they don’t tackle it?

AO: Most organizations operate under the myth that we leave our private lives at the door. But in truth, as your work demonstrates, Stew, when you come to work you come to work as a full person,  with history and with emotions and it’s a challenge to behave as if you are a professional robot.   Employers expect employees to behave in only a professional way, bounded by the physical space (the office) and the time (the work day).

SF: You’re saying that theboundaries are often ignored to detriment of both parties. So what about the research you’ve been doing onsocial networks with my colleagues here at Wharton, Nancy Rothbard and Justin Berg?

AO: Facebook has 1.3 billion active users, when last I checked, and half are on every day. On social networks, people average 130 connections including 16 co-workers, and sometime supervisors. So interactions at work extend to cyber space, online. But you also have personal things happening online. You may have supervisors, coworkers, clients, friends, family; all online.  People forget who has access, they disclose too much to their “invisible audience.”

SF: So what happens when these professional and personal worlds collide online?

AO: Cyberspace offers opportunities to connect with colleagues and broadcast information, for example to market a product or book.  But it also creates challenges. In real life we have boundaries. We can segment time or space.  We can have different email in-boxes for different categories of connections. We have mental fences to help us simplify complex realities and remind us of social scripts. In the real world, as opposed to cyber space, you come to work in attire appropriate to the work setting and you use appropriate language, you behave in ways appropriate to your professional setting.

SF: In the real world there are markers, reminders: clothes, mores, norms, codes of conduct.

AO: Yes, you know not to wear a bathing suit to work. But you might post a family beach vacation picture in which you’re wearing a bathing suit.  What about if your Board of Directors sees that picture of you in your bathing suit on Facebook? They might be open to it, but their perception of you will change.

SF: With what consequence?

AO: We’ve found that there are important consequences in terms of respect and liking. If you share many personal pictures, people might like you more because they know you more. They may also like you less, if, for instance, you have a different political opinion than they do.

SF: Better to avoid politics in cyber space?

AO: Yes. That’s part of the content strategy. If you feel the need to re-create the boundary that you don’t have in cyberspace, just share neutral material. And don’t share goofy comments.  the other thing is the audience approach. Try to control who gets to be connected to you and who gets to see your information.

SF: With whom should you connect? Supervisors? Peers? Subordinates? Should LinkedIn be for professional circles and Facebook for friends and family, for example?

AO: It depends on the goals. You can try to re-create some boundaries. If you do nothing to create separation, that’s an open approach, and you might disclose too much which can have serious consequences to your professional reputation. An example of an infamous social media disaster: “The Infamous Africa tweet” by Justine Sacco, a communications executive with IAC, who was on her way to South Africa and posted a tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding.  I’m white! She spent 11 hours on the plane while the tweet ricocheted around the internet and when she landed, she was fired. Funny is hard; it’s risky. You can’t judge the audience so that you can make adjustments.

SF: So, is the open strategy is to be avoided? Should caution rule? What’s your advice?  What does the evidence indicate?

AO: It is best to try to do something about the collision of the worlds.  Ignore people or don’t accept their invitations.  But then, of course, you might offend people who, while colleagues, consider themselves friends of yours. But it is best to try to re-create boundaries. Make mental fences.  And be careful about content. Avoid politics, sexual orientation, and religion.

SF: So, avoid hot content. But what about invitations from colleagues and coworkers?

AO: Bosses who ask to be connected ask are intruding. And there can be consequences to team dynamics. What if boss is friends with one or two but not with others?

SF: Are there any benefits from cyber connectivity, bringing different parts together?

AO:  You get to connect with people with whom you work and that helps your charisma.  Mixing the professional and personal makes you seem authentic.  Creating different Google circles is an option.

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre is Professor at University of Québec in Montréal (UQAM), Canada. Her research investigates how individuals articulate professional and personal identities and responsibilities and how organizations address changing career and work-family issues in different parts of the world. @ArianeOllier

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

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