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future of work

SoapBox is one of a growing number of companies embracing workers having a life outside of work, a development that, when handled responsibly, can actually lead to better performance and productivity, new research suggests.Glenn Lowson

There are still organizations that insist employees leave their personal lives at the door when they go to work. But, for many, work-life boundaries have blurred – a development that, handled responsibly, can actually lead to better performance and productivity, new research suggests.

"Who says you shouldn't combine work and life?" asks Sara MacNaull, program director at the Vanier Institute of the Family, flagging a U.S.-based study challenging the conventional wisdom that employees need to keep their home and work lives separate in order to maintain concentration at work.

In their report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, published in the journal Human Relations, researchers from Ball State University and St. Louis University note that advanced communication technologies, and the ease with which they can be used, "contribute to the regular crossing of boundaries that separate work and family. … Most individuals transition between work and family roles on a daily basis, and often, multiple times within a day."

The Vanier Institute of the Family has found that the younger generation of managers and employees, in particular, is adept at blending both roles and expects the freedom to be able to do so.

A quick check to ensure school-aged children are home and, in fact, doing their homework, gives working parents the peace of mind to concentrate more fully on the work task at hand. A text about which spouse will pick up milk on the way home and which will get the dry cleaning takes seconds.

Ms. MacNaull said in an interview that more employers are recognizing that flexible work arrangements are necessary to attract and retain high-quality employees.

Studies by the Vanier Institute and others have found that "the more flexibility employees have, [and] the greater their ability to integrate work and life as they define it, the higher their productivity, the higher their performance and the greater the return on investment," added Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based research organization.

Brennan McEachran, the 25-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based SoapBox Innovations Inc., said a couple of his colleagues are world-class Ironman Triathlon competitors.

"They are literally training as much as professional athletes and they are also doing a great job at work. That lifestyle puts different stresses on their work relationship, but as long as the results are there, that's really what we are asking of our team," he said.

SoapBox has developed a software platform that makes it easier for employers to collect, and act on, innovative ideas from employees about how to improve the way they do business. Clients of the rapidly growing startup include Bank of Montreal, Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Indigo Books & Music Inc., Viceroy Hotels & Resorts, and Coca-Cola Co.

SoapBox uses its own technology to tap the in-house expertise of its own people as well.

"We are growing faster than we can add people, so we have to make smart decisions. We have to work smarter, not harder."

It's a "high-trust" work culture, with the staff of 30 empowered to decide how they can best do whatever has to be done. Members of one of his work teams routinely work off-site a couple of days a week, sometimes meeting in a coffee shop or working individually from their homes. "The key thing we think about is 'Are you getting the results that you want and/or are you stopping someone else from getting the results that they want?' " Mr. McEachran said.

Given the young company's momentum, it would be tough to sustain any sort of lifestyle without a very fluid approach. Mr. McEachran uses his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts as his work accounts – "I post about work a lot because I am very passionate about what I do."

There are no restrictions on the personal use of Facebook or Twitter at work, either, he said. Employees' connections go well beyond the work sphere "and there are very powerful networking effects when employees share content [about the business] on their own social networks."

Some of the staff members are new parents, some are just out of university, Mr. McEachran said. "I'm a huge dog person, so there are two or three dogs in the office. … Our lunch table conversations are always quite interesting" – ranging from shop talk and the psychology behind the SoapBox technology, to university life, training dogs, teaching babies. "There's a lot of overlap and a lot of shared knowledge."

While advanced technology enables instant communication from work to home and home to work, the key to whether this is welcome or disruptive comes down to control, Ms. Spinks said. "Is it within your control to turn it on, turn it off? Does it control your life, or do you use the technology to effectively manage your multiple responsibilities?"

Editor's Note: The name of the journal mentioned in this article is Human Relations. A previous version had an incorrect name. This is the corrected version of the article.

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