Segmentors vs Integrators: Google’s work-life-balance research

Segmentors vs Integrators: Google’s work-life-balance research
Google research shows that those who rigidly separate their personal and work lives are significantly happier about their well-being than those who tend to blur the lines between the two.

In the past, work ended when we left the office and didn’t start back up again till we clocked in the next morning. Now we take our work everywhere we go, on our phones and laptops. This constant connection to work can make it more difficult to clearly define where “work” ends and “life” begins. We on Google’s People Analytics team wanted to better understand how Googlers manage this separation in their own lives.

To help us answer this question, we looked to past research from Christena Nippert-Eng that suggests that people tend to either use one of two strategies to manage work and nonwork roles:

  1. Segmentors are employees who create rigid boundaries between their personal and work lives. They reported that: "In my life, there is a clear boundary between my career and my non-work roles."
  2. Integrators are employees who blur the lines been work and home, switching back and forth between the two. This group often agreed that: “It is often difficult to tell where my work life ends and my non-work life begins.”

Using this framework, we asked Googlers to tell us what type of work-life arrangement they preferred and what their actual work-life experience was currently. We found that, regardless of preference, Segmentors were significantly happier with their well-being than Integrators. Additionally, Segmentors were more than twice as likely to be able to detach from work (when they wanted to). Less than a third of Googlers behaved like Segmentors and over half of Integrators said they wished they could segment better.

Our findings diverge a bit from some other research into work-life integration. Dr. Glen Kreiner found that the match between a person’s preference and their actual experience is key for satisfaction and well-being. So if someone who preferred segmentation was able to actually segment work and life, then they would reap the benefits of higher satisfaction.

Being aware of these different operating styles helps inform our people practices and interventions. For example, in 2012 our Dublin office ran a program called “Dublin Goes Dark” in which they asked people to drop off their devices at the front desk before leaving for the night. Googlers said that this site-wide effort resulted in a shared sense of stress relief for many.

We’ve also seen teams try using the “One Simple Thing” goal-setting technique to improve their well-being and work-life flexibility. We haven’t been able to measure the success of this technique, but it’s low-tech and common sense: employees set a non-work goal and share it with their manager (and sometimes team). The goal can be something like: “I will not read emails on the weekends.” By sharing the goal, teams can develop norms to help everyone achieve their life and work goals.

External research also offers some tips for managing well-being. For example, one study found work-related smartphone use after 9pm decreased both sleep quantity and quality, which in turn leads to feeling less refreshed the following morning and less engaged during work the next day. Another study showed that what people do on their time off can help encourage detachment. The researchers found that people who spent some time outside of work focused on improving a non-work skill or ability (e.g. taking a language class, climbing a mountain) tended to be happier and less stressed.

With a holiday season approaching, think about ways you and your team can better unplug.