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CIOS - Flexible Work, Time, and Technology: Ideological Dilemmas of Managing Work-Life Interrelationships using Personal Digital Assistants
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Annis G. Golden
University at Albany

Cheryl Geisler
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Abstract: Flexible work arrangements represent a common organizational strategy for meeting workers’ desire for work-life accommodations. Such arrangements, however, create the need for greater self-management and time management on the part of workers who engage in them. Consequently, flexible work has been variously construed as empowering, exploitative, or dilemmatic. This study examines the technological and interpretive practices of knowledge workers who use personal digital assistants (PDAs) as tools to manage flexible work and time. We identify ideological dilemmas presented by both flexible work itself and the material and discursive practices knowledge workers draw upon in managing flexible work and work-life interrelationships.

Flexible work arrangements [1] have been identified in recent research on work design and work-life interrelationships as an increasingly common organizational practice. These arrangements represent a strategy for retaining diverse and talented employees and adapting to available labor pools, while meeting employees’ desires to accommodate work to various personal life concerns, ranging from child and elder care to personal growth and physical fitness. Flexible work arrangements, however, necessitate greater self management generally and time management more specifically for workers who engage in them. For knowledge workers especially, who constitute an increasingly significant segment of the workforce in our post-industrial economy, the activity of time- and self-management is also likely to be technologically mediated (Ballard & Seibold, 2004a; Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985).

The meaning and value of flexible work arrangements, however, is far from self-evident. Proponents of such arrangements (Bailyn, Drago, & Kochan, 2001; Bailyn & Harrington, 2004; Jacobs & Gerson, 2004; Moen & Sweet, 2004), foreground the empowering qualities of autonomy and control they offer workers. In this view, flexible work is framed as a feature of participative organizations, with management empowering workers by ceding some measure of control over the conditions of work. Critics, though, construe flexibility more in terms of increased responsibility than increased freedom, warning that work can expand, intensify, and colonize the private world when norms about where, when, and how long to work are removed (Brannen, 2005; Felstead & Jewson, 2000; Golden, Kirby, & Jorgenson, 2006; Sabelis, 2001; Steward, 2000). It has even been argued that flexible work represents a step backwards toward the unregulated work schedules that organized labor and legislators worked to reform in the first half of the 20 th century (Everingham, 2002).

Somewhere between these perspectives is a more contingent view that emphasizes the socially constructed nature of work-life interrelationships in general and strategies for managing flexible work in particular; this perspective is distinctively though not exclusively associated with the communication discipline (Carlone, 2001; Edley, 2001; Edley, Hylmö, & Newsom, 2004; Golden, 2000; Hylmö & Buzzanell, 2002; Tietze & Musson, 2002). Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, and Buzzanell (2003) have argued that the interdisciplinary literature on work-life interrelationships has tended to focus on predicting outcomes, while the communication discipline has foregrounded the processes through which work-life interrelationships are negotiated using a discursive, meaning-centered perspective.

Such widespread and contradictory characterizations of flexible work meet the definition of an “ideological dilemma.” This construct conveys the idea that people draw upon contrary themes in the ideology of everyday life (i.e., commonsense understandings of social life), which are historically and culturally specific, and which are evident in their talk (Billig et al., 1988) [2]. Moreover, while subjective or qualitative experiences of time in relation to work (versus quantitative “clock” measurements) are shaped by time management technologies (Ballard & Seibold, 2004a; Edley et al., 2004; Hassard, 1996; Payne, 1993), this influence is always mediated by workers’ own material and interpretive practices (Orlikowski, 2000; Poole & McPhee, 2005).

We utilize a communication-centered, interpretive approach to examine how the contradictions of flexible work arrangements and technologically mediated time management are practically and discursively managed by workers themselves. From this perspective, discourse (about managing work flexibility and time through technology) and materiality (of time management technology and technological practices) exist in a “reciprocal, dialectical, and mutually defining” relationship (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004, p. 123). It is therefore of interest to examine both what people report doing with respect to technologically mediated time management and flexible work arrangements, and how they characterize their actions as meaningful (Holstein & Gubrium, 2004).

Literature Review: Dilemmatic Discourse and Practices in Flexible Work, Time and Technology


Flexibility as a discourse and set of practices presents an ideological dilemma vis-à-vis time management and empowerment as it relates to managing work and personal life. Framed by employers as a mutually beneficial arrangement, flexibility allows employees to attend to personal life concerns while still getting their work done; for example, when the car is in the shop or children are home sick from school (Bailyn et al., 2001; Bailyn & Harrington, 2004; Jacobs & Gerson, 2004; Moen & Sweet, 2004).

However, Brannen (2005) argues that what appears on the surface to represent a ceding of control by management to individual employees actually results in a loss of control, because flexible work arrangements destabilize “normative ideas of what is a ‘reasonable amount of time’ to spend at work” (p. 115), making it increasingly difficult for individuals to disengage. When individuals are chronically busy, when “the present is filled to the brim,” it becomes an “extended present…which not only stops people from imagining the future; it stops them from doing anything about it or creating changes in the future” (Brannen, 2005, pp. 116-117). Another potential negative consequence of the intensive self management required by flexible work is the migration of rational time management into the private realm to the detriment of an ethic of care (Sabelis, 2001). Work time is commodified time that has an economic value and is aimed at production of specific outcomes. In contrast, care time (or family time) focuses on process in that “social interaction is the purpose as well as the outcome of spending time and is not simply a means to an instrumental end” (Brannen, 2005, p. 117).

Yet even with these warnings against flexibility, the alternative proposed by Ylijoki and Mäntylä (2003) is that “temporal structures in organizations repress individuals’ experiences and impose discipline and standardized requirements on them…form[ing] a sort of prison in which members of the organization are confined” (p. 57). Therefore, perhaps more autonomous uses of time are worth the risks associated with flexible work.

Time Management

Historically, time management has its roots in the principles of scientific management delineated by Charles Winslow Taylor in the early 20 th century (1998/1911). Two of Taylor’s principles are especially relevant to contemporary time management. The first is efficiency, or the idea that there is one best way to accomplish any task in the workplace. The other is separating the planning of work from the execution of work. In a traditional early 20 th century industrial environment, this meant that work processes were designed by managers (through the results of time and motion studies and breaking down work processes into smaller and smaller tasks), and laborers carried out the work. These principles have been adapted for contemporary time management by making the individual into a kind of micro-organization, since the individual assumes both the role of planning work and the role of carrying the work out.

Contemporary time management regimens [3] have attracted substantial critical attention from academic researchers. For example, Sabelis (2001) interprets the shift in time management from generic techniques of using time more efficiently toward personalized plans for time- and self-management as reflecting a generally negative trend toward individualization in Western societies. Similarly, Brannen (2005) argues the individualization of the work experience detaches those who engage in them from “the shared or collective experiences of time, [including] for example community and family rituals and celebrations” (p. 117).

Even those less critical of popular time management techniques acknowledge their emphasis on individual responsibility and its consistency with U.S. Americans’ cultural predilection for individualism (Bellah et al., 1985; Carlone, 2001; Jackson, 1999). Both Jackson (1999) and Carlone (2001) also point out the advantages that accrue to management when individuals take personal responsibility for managing time and their own successes and failures. It can be inferred that such arrangements work on a principle similar to that identified by Barker (1993) as the initial step in the development of a concertive control system, the internalization of managerial values. Consequently, it could be argued that in adopting self-regulating work arrangements and typical time management practices, employees internalize managerial practices of surveillance and assessment.

Technology and Time Management

Framing time management as “technology” adds another dimension to the ideological dilemma of enablement and constraint presented by flexibility, since technology both extends users’ capabilities and at the same time shapes their activities. When time management systems take the form of paper based planners and self-help style manuals explaining how to use them optimally (e.g., Franklin Planners; Day Runners; At-A-Glance planners) (Geisler, 2003), they do not represent “technologies” in the sense of mechanical or electronic devices. They can, however, be considered examples of what Foucault (1988) has referred to as:

technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (p. 18, italics added)

Foucault notes that technologies of the self, like other technologies he identifies, are “associated with a certain type of domination…[and entail] certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills, but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes” (1988, p. 18). In the case of time management systems, these attitudes might include a concern with rational efficiency (Sabelis, 2001) but also more positively a concern with “effectiveness,” understood as encompassing concern for others, personal growth, and a well-balanced life (Caporael & Xie, 2003; Carlone, 2001; Jackson, 1999; Kirvin, 2004).

Recently, some time management systems have transitioned from print to electronic format and have been incorporated into a new generation of handheld computers referred to as personal digital assistants (PDAs). PDAs come with standard built-in applications for calendars, addresses, notes, and tasks. Third-party software for more elaborate or customized planning and organizing functions can also be loaded. While not achieving the level of consumer use of cell phones, PDAs are nonetheless far from an exotic technology, particularly among knowledge workers. In 2001, shortly before the data reported on here were collected, 13.2 million PDAs had been shipped (Singer, 2005). Moreover, the convergence of wireless technologies (such as internet access and mobile telephony) suggests the devices may grow in popularity. The PDA manufacturer PalmOne, for example, reported shipping 100,000 units in the first six weeks after introducing its new Treo 600 integrated PDA, cell phone, text-message, web-surfing device (Walker, 2004).

The additional capabilities made possible by incorporating the paper planning technology into electronic personal information management (PIM) systems have to do primarily with capacity and ease of use. In terms of capacity, a user can have available much more information in all of the applications than would be feasible to carry in paper form (for example, additional years forward and backward on the calendar, and greatly expanded capacity for notes, memos, and contact information). Ease of use advantages include: (a) the simplicity of revising scheduling information when needed and carrying over tasks from one time frame to another; (b) the compactness of the device; (c) its instant-on capability; and (d) the ability to replicate the information contained in it on a desktop or notebook computer, both for security purposes and for accessibility (Geisler, 2003).

The PDA technology, then, represents a tool for time management that becomes potentially valuable when individuals have the (mixed?) blessing of flexibility in their work arrangements. And just as flexible work arrangements and time management practices contain possibilities for both empowerment and exploitation, so does the PDA. We see the PDA, like the previous generation of “technologies of the self” on which it is based, as a technology inscribed with certain properties by its designers and yet still capable of being used by human agents in ways not envisioned by its designers. This is consistent with Orlikowski’s (2000) “practice perspective” on technology, which locates structures, including rules for activities to be performed with the technology (such as, in this case, time management activities) and resources for accomplishing those activities (such as stored data) as emergent from technology use rather than being built in to the technology. In short, our view of this technology and technology in general parallels our view of flexible work arrangements and time management practices: dialectical and informed by ideological dilemmas.

Taking a social constructionist stance toward the technology means that the processes through which PDA use accomplishes time management and negotiates ideological dilemmas must be understood as taking place at two inextricably linked levels—practice and discourse. As Hörning, Ahrens and Gerhard (1999) state, “In order to form an opinion on the consequences of the application of modern technologies for time practices, it is essential to examine what significancetechnology is given in its concrete and practical application” (p. 302, italics added).

Research Questions

Flexibility in work, then, entails some form of self-management, central to which is the management of time; and technology plays a crucial role in this nexus of time, work, and control, both in creating possibilities for flexibility through the disembedding of work activities from organizationally fixed time and space (Edley, 2001, 2004), and in managing these activities (Geisler, 2003). However, all of these elements of the work experience—flexibility, time management, and technologies of self-management—carry with them the potential for both empowerment and exploitation, enablement and constraint.

A substantial body of interdisciplinary research has documented the ways in which workers experience and manage their time within organizations (see Hassard, 1996, for an overview). More recently, the communication discipline has contributed an examination of the “mutually constitutive relationship between time and communication” in organizations (Ballard & Seibold, 2004a, p. 2; see also Ballard & Seibold, 2003, 2004b). This study augments this literature on time in organizations by considering time in the context of flexible work arrangements, or how individuals manage time in relationship to organizations. This study also contributes to the literature on the communicative construction of time in relationship to work by taking an explicitly discourse analytic approach, as recommended by Hassard (1996) in his call to the research community for further inquiry into the qualitative experience of time and work. And finally, this study augments extant research on time and work by considering the interrelatedness of work-time and personal life-time. While it is often asserted that work represents the primary institution around which all other activity is fitted (Ciulla, 2000; Deetz, 1992; Hassard, 1996; Hochschild, 1997), others have argued for more mutuality of influence between the workplace, personal life, and the construction of time across domains of experience (Ballard & Seibold, 2004a; Golden et al., 2006; Perlow, 1998).

In this study, PDA use thus serves as a focal point for examining the ideological dilemmas presented by increased autonomy over work arrangements and by extension work-life interrelationships. This study, therefore, addresses the following research questions through the analysis of interview accounts supplied by users of personal digital assistants (PDAs):

RQ1: What problems related to time management in the context of flexible work arrangements are addressed in the discourse of individuals whose work permits or requires flexibility?
RQ2: What technological and interpretive practices do individuals engage in to manage these problems related to time management?
RQ3: What ideological premises and dilemmas are implicated in these technological and interpretive practices?

Research Procedures

Data Collection

The process of data collection began with exploratory interviews with five adult working professionals (four men and one woman) who were experienced PDA users and knowledge workers. Interviewees were asked to describe the relationship between work and the rest of their life; how they came to be PDA users; what they used their PDAs for; and whether they felt that using a PDA had generally helped them in managing work, personal life, and their interrelationships. The interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed to identify PDA use practices and associated discourses.

The results of the exploratory interview analysis were used to develop a questionnaire that combined multiple-choice and scaled items with open-ended questions; the goal of the interview protocol was to gather information on technology use practices more systematically than was possible with a less structured interview protocol, while at the same time eliciting interpretive discourse on intentions and goals for use, as well as contextual information in the form of users’ characterization of their work-life arrangements [4].

Participants were recruited through requests for referrals sent by email to over 70 personal contacts of the authors in various locations within the United States. Replies to these inquiries generated a list of over 90 potential participants. Out of this pool, a convenience sample of 48 individuals was selected to be recruited; 42 agreed to be interviewed. The number of interviewees selected for contact was based on the nature of the data we sought and is consistent with studies with similar designs and aims (e.g., Campbell & Russo, 2003; Palen, Salzman, & Youngs, 2000). The adequacy of the sample size and composition was confirmed by the results of the analysis, which yielded well defined technology use and discourse patterns (limitations of the sample are discussed in our conclusions). Participants’ responses to closed-ended questions were recorded on paper by the authors. The interviews were also audio-taped to capture the participants’ responses to open-ended questions and any elaborations on closed-ended questions.


The participants in this study were, on average, highly experienced technology users, with just over 30 months of PDA use. Participants’ sex and age distribution generally mirrored the characteristics of typical PDA users (Gilroy, 2001; Thibodeaux, 2001). A slight majority of participants (62%) were men. In terms of age distribution, 36% were 50 or older, 33% were between 35 and 50, 24% were between 25 and 35, and only 7% were between 18 and 25. The occupational distribution included many (college-level) educators (42%), some managers (29%), and some IT professionals (19%). Most participants worked both at home and at a place of work: 26% occasionally took work home while 57% reported working regularly in both places. Only a few worked exclusively at work (14%) or at home (2%). Thus, both the participants’ occupations and self-reported work arrangements confirm the relevance of the concept of flexible work. Most participants had family or other relationship obligations of one sort or another, only 19% did not. On the whole, they reported having an active life, with an average of 3.8 different activities outside of work and family . The most frequently reported personal-life activities included athletics (43%), an exercise program (67%), church membership (38%), volunteering (52%), hobby (74%), travel (62%), and a miscellany of other activities (38%) including walking the dog and doing yard work.

Numerical Data Analysis

In the first phase of data analysis, we focused on technology practices, with the aim of establishing a metric for how PDA use practices related to managing work-life interrelationships. We focused on the portion of the questionnaire called the PDA content classification task, which asked individuals to look at a sample in each of their four main PDA applications (calendar, notes, tasklist, and address book) and report the number of items they considered work-related versus personal life-related. The numbers participants reported were summed and used to calculate a ratio of work-related to life-related items which we refer to as their PDA use Work-Life Index (number of work-related items divided by number of life-related items). We identified three clusters of use patterns: Life-Intensive, Work-Intensive, and Integrated. The Integrated Use Pattern was the most common, accounting for 50% of the participants (n=21); in this group participants’ indexes averaged 1.00 or about one work item for every life item. The next most common was the Work-Intensive Use Pattern, accounting for 26% of participants (n=11); in this group participants’ indexes averaged 1.91 or almost two work items for every life item. Just slightly less common was the Life-Intensive use pattern, which accounted for 24% of the participants (n=10); in this group participants’ indexes averaged .42, or almost two life items for every work item. These results strongly suggest the interrelatedness of work and personal-life in the self-management strategies of individuals with flexible work.

The results of this analysis were also used as part of the criteria in selecting 20 interviews for full transcription. In addition to selecting participants representing a range of overall PDA use patterns (as measured by the Work-Life Use Index), we also selected based on the richness of the responses interviewees provided to the open-ended questions (since the study’s methodology was primarily discourse analytic), and to include individuals with varied work and personal life commitments and different expressed goals for managing work and personal life interrelationships (e.g., integration versus segmentation). To preserve the confidentiality of their responses, these individuals were all assigned pseudonyms.

Discourse Analysis

The approach to analyzing interview talk in this study blends features of two related forms of discourse analysis: Tracy’s (1995) action-implicative discourse analysis and the form of discourse analysis developed by Wetherell and Potter (1988). These two forms of discourse analysis share “a rhetorical approach to conversational interaction,” and the assumptions that “conversational actions are designed by communicators to address situationally particular concerns and goals” and that “multiple goals, paradoxes, and dilemmas are part of everyday life and lead to the problems or attitudinal ‘inconsistencies’ of everyday communicators” (Tracy, 1995, p. 206).

Both approaches emphasize the analysis of interview accounts. However, interview accounts in action-implicative discourse analysis are primarily of interest as metadiscourse on participants’ interactional problems in settings outside of the interview. In contrast, the analysis of interview accounts in the discursive psychology discourse analytic tradition focuses on the identification of the discursive resources that individuals draw upon in making sense of various domains of experience, though not exclusively or even primarily interactional experiences. Interview accounts are seen as occasions for displaying discursive resources for “making evaluations, constructing factual versions, and performing particular actions” (Wetherell & Potter, 1988, p. 90).

The discourse produced in the interview accounts obtained for this study does not primarily focus on communicative interactions; thus, in this sense the goals of this study diverge from a pure action-implicative discourse analytic study. However, the structure that Tracy (1995; see also Craig & Tracy, 1995) outlines for applying her method is particularly appropriate to this study because of its emphasis on identifying connections between everyday practices and philosophical concerns to show how individuals manage ideological dilemmas.

Therefore, our approach to analyzing the interview accounts begins with the formulation of problems or dilemmas (problem level), proceeds to the identification of interpretive and technological practices individuals use to manage their problems (technical level), and finally “ articulat[es] situated ideals – that is, the inchoate normative principles used by participants to reflect upon and criticize action” (philosophical level) (Tracy, 1995, p. 197). At the technical level, we identify discursive resources that interviewees draw upon to construct their actions and themselves rather than to represent problematic conversational interactions. Clearly, though, the deployment of these discursive resources have implications for conversational interactions as individuals negotiate meanings for various forms of work-life interrelationships with communication partners in the home and workplace, and the ways in which they use technology to shape work and personal-life.

Like other qualitative research approaches, the discourse analytic approach taken here is primarily inductive. However, as Strauss and Corbin (1990) observe in the context of the grounded theory approach, effective qualitative inquiry also draws on previous theoretical and empirical research to heighten the “theoretical sensitivity” of the researcher. Thus our articulation of the problems, interpretive and technological practices, and ideals displayed in the interview accounts is both informed by the relevant research literature discussed in the preceding sections and emergent from the accounts themselves. Analysis of the accounts was an interpretive-analytic process of reading, re-reading, coding, and recoding transcripts as categories of discursive resources and interpretive practices emerged and were then considered in relation to each other. To facilitate this process, we used the N6 software program (the latest version in the QSR NUD*IST series).


To answer our research questions, we begin at the problem level to outline the problems related to time management in the context of flexible work arrangements addressed in the discourse of our participants. We then move to the technical level to explain the technological and interpretive practices that individuals engage in to manage these problems related to time management. Finally, we conclude at the philosophical level to articulate the ideological premises and dilemmas that are inherent in the technological and interpretive practices.

Problem Level

Flexibility and the technologically mediated management of time offer opportunities for expansion of individual control (over the amount, the timing, and the place of work), but also carry with them the possibilities for constraint and exploitation. The research literature and participant accounts suggest this problem has the following three interrelated dimensions.

Problem 1: Controlling the scope and structure of work. Flexible work arrangements place at least some control over the structure of work (i.e., when and where it takes place) in the hands of the individual employee. When employees can choose reduced work hours, it also places some control over the scope of work. This control is empowering vis-à-vis managing work and personal life interrelationships insofar as it allows the individual to arrange work around the requirements of personal life (for example, leaving work in time to meet one’s children’s school bus). However, as noted earlier, when collective norms for when and where to work are removed and placed in the hands of the individual worker, norms for how much to work may erode as well, with the consequence that individuals work more.

Problem 2: Avoiding the “extended present.” Increased autonomy in work arrangements gives individual employees the latitude to incorporate personal planning and organizing systems, such as electronic organizers (PDAs) into their work routines, and thus increases the possibility of working more efficiently. However, efficiencies of time use have the potential simply to accelerate the pace of work, and life more generally, rather than free up time for more leisurely uses, leaving individuals in an “extended present” (Brannen, 2005, p. 116), and creating a disconnect between “everyday time” and “life time” (Hörning et al., 1999). In the pursuit of greater efficiencies, time and tasks can become fragmented, to the detriment of work, leisure, meaningfulness, and even personal character (Sennett, 1998).

Problem 3: Managing the relationship between work-time and life-time. Both of the problems identified above have obvious implications for work and personal-life interrelationships. However, a more explicit problem arises in the application of standards for managing work time to time in personal life, which may be prompted by personal organizing systems that have built into them rational/instrumental orientations toward time use. Moreover, if flexibility leads to internalization of managerialism, then managerialism—with its emphasis on product rather than process, on monochronic, linear time rather than polychronic event- or interaction-oriented time—may be imposed on the conduct of personal life (Deetz, 1992).

Technical Level

At the technical level we consider the repertory of discursive resources that individuals draw upon in representing the technological activities they engage in to manage flexibility, as well as the dilemmas that are reflected in their interpretive practices. The discursive resources we identified, the technological practices they were associated with, and the dilemmas or contradictions associated with the interpretive practices are summarized in Table 1. Fuller explanation and illustration follows [5].

Discursive resources and technological practices that address Problem 1, “Controlling the scope and structure of work.” Three types of discursive resources and associated technological practices were identified that address the problem of controlling the tendency for flexible work to expand. The first discourse represents the PDA as a means by which work can be controlled through better organizational practices. The response of Jim, a university administrator, typifies those participants who characterized the PDA as enhancing their ability to keep work within the scope they have defined for it:

Cheryl: [Regarding] the balance between work and life. Five is where the balance has been significantly improved and one is where it is significantly worse.

Jim: I guess I will go with four. I think it has because the organizational effect has helped things better at home. You know, I don't stack things up on weekends.

Cheryl: Uh-huh. So you get your work done before you leave?

Jim: Yes.

Jim’s interpretive practice draws on a discourse of PDA use as contributing to limiting hours spent in work through better organizational skills. However, other participants’ discourse reflected the dilemmatic nature of technologically enhanced efficiency and the concern that as work is made more efficient, more work simply fills the extra time. As Frank, a sales executive with a high-tech organization, who has a young family, explains:

Annis: Would you say that the PDA has had any kind of positive impact on life outside of work in terms of giving you more time for life outside of work or would you say that it is maybe done the opposite? As kind of allowing you to work any time, any place?

Frank: Well, it definitely is allowing me to work anytime, any place but it is allowing me to do it more efficiently.

Annis: Okay.

Frank: So, I think it is a zero-sum game there, I think it is a good balance.

Or the response of Leon, a mental health practitioner and educator, to the same question:

Leon: I don’t think it makes me a better professor, a better mental health clinician or a better father, or you know.

Cheryl: Yea.

Leon: I just think it helps me get a handle on my life more quickly.

Cheryl: And what do you do as a result of that quickness?

Leon: Keep more lists.

Cheryl: Do you have more time to do other things?

Leon: Yeah... Well, I don’t know if I could say. It is hard to say. There is no vacuum in my life. I am always doing something.

The second form of discourse is controlling work by tracking work-time; that is, consulting the PDA’s calendar to ensure that one is not planning more work activities than desirable. As Geisler (2003) notes, tracking hours put in on tasks is one of the primary purposes for which paper planners were historically designed, though with the original goal of providing records for billing professionals’ time, rather than preventing workers from overburdening themselves.

Leon: I always check my PDA now as a rule of thumb before committing to another activity.

Cheryl: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Do you decide not to do it just because there is a conflict or because you have too much going on? Do you sometimes do that?

Leon: It could be a conflict or it could just be there is too much going on that day.

Miranda, an assistant professor with family responsibilities, takes this one step further in linking the reason for tracking and limiting work involvement to preserving the quality of personal time.

It does help me to balance. Because I can see um you know what needs to be done, where I need to be, um so that and I guess this comes from the fact that I mentor TAs, is that I do a lot of classroom observations. And I can see that from 10:30 until 11:20 I need to be on west campus over in the agricultural mall but then if I schedule another observation at 11:30 to 12:20 that’s in the main mall, nine times out of 10, I’m not gonna make it. So it helps to schedule things in terms of physical proximity uh and then also helps me to schedule things in terms of um, in terms of simply knowing how many things you know I should kind of bog myself down with in one day. And then it also helps me to kind of make my last day of the week and first day of the week, if it’s not possible to make them totally free, to make them light. So that I don’t end up having a really bad weekend or a really bad week. Because I you know ended the week or began the week with just way too much stuff.

It is in the dilemmatic nature of this form of control, though, that work can take place that is not calendared. Thus, relying on the calendar to monitor how much time work is taking up can be problematic, and result in making some work “invisible.” This is reflected in the interpretive practice of Charley, an executive with a large urban advertising agency, who is married with small children.

Annis: And would you typically have anything calendared for a work task for the weekend?

Charley: No.

Annis: Okay.

Charley: I mean, I shouldn’t have said No. There is the odd time when I have a conference call or something like that and I always do work over the weekend, calendar, and I usually do it when everyone goes to sleep.

The third form of discourse related to Problem 1 references using the PDA to segregate personal-life IT-related activities from work-life IT-related activities and then consulting only the device associated with the spatio-temporal context (home or work) in which the user locates him/herself. Ronnie, a young single information technology professional, segregates his IT devices by personal and professional applications, reserving the PDA primarily for personal use and turning off his laptop computer at home. In the context of explaining how he came to use a PDA Ronnie says:

Yes, when I had it on paper, I had both work and personal there. And then with the PDA, one the PDA offers better convenience, easier to put [in] the information, more capacity for more information. So, it was all around better. And then, because I had the laptop with work and I didn’t want anything work-related on—Well, to try separate the work on my PDA since again, if I am home, I am not touching—I shouldn’t be doing anything work-related.

However, Ronnie also describes himself as violating his own “rules” for consulting the IT device associated with the opposite spatio-temporal domain:

Annis: You said earlier under #5 [“Which of the following best describes your work situation”], that you do occasionally bring work home or do work from home.

Ronnie: I put that—it could have been an A in the response [“Work exclusively at place of employment”] and the response I put was B [“Work primarily at place of employment but occasionally bring work home”] because I do have the ability to do remote access and sometimes since we are a global position, we will have meetings – say with Asia or with Europe. And so, instead of staying at work, I feel more comfortable in sweats and for a meeting, so I will go ahead and conduct a meeting [via remote access] at home.

The dilemmatic nature of the IT segregation practice or “rule” and the discourse that Ronnie uses to characterize it is rooted in the tension between framing technologically mediated work in the home space as empowering for the worker or exploitative by the employer. Ronnie cites the need to circumscribe work technologically by specializing IT devices, but also represents himself willfully violating the rule when it contributes to his own “comfort.”

Discursive resources and technological practices that address Problem 2, “Avoiding the ‘extended present’.” Three types of discursive resources and associated technological practices were identified that address the problem of avoiding the trap of the “extended present” (Brannen, 2005). The first discourse represents the PDA as a means to step out of the present moment and plan events in order to achieve a valued goal. For example, Miranda looks at her week on the PDA to see how it plays out and attempts to manage it so that the way she spends her time will be consistent with her goals for personal life:

When I look at my calendar I will see, I can actually see how many things I have to do during a day or during a week that are work related, and then I’ve found myself doing lately is looking at the calendar and trying to make sure that there’s like one additional day per week on top of the weekend when I don’t have you know, 19 things on my calendar. Uh, just so that I know that will be a day I can have a low stress day at work, you know, do some grading, do some prep, um and be able to come home early and not be stressed out. You know, it’s more conducive to having family time rather than you know, doing 18 classroom observations and two committee meetings in one day and then coming home and being really kind of surly. So I mean it’s helped me kind of to visualize what my what my days look like so that I can not have them be quite so full and stressful.

On the other hand, Miranda also says:

Yes, [the PDA] helps me plan my week. I don’t know, because I don’t really feel like I plan my week. I feel more like my week plans me. Um. Because I just put everything in and as long I don’t get the little yellow bar that says there’s conflicts, I’m usually okay.

The second form of discourse represents the notes application as a way out of the extended present by providing a means of holding on to things that the individual does not want to forget. In describing the contents of their notes application, participants referenced a wide variety of items, often including a mix of work and personal-life.

Charley: [Notes are] really arbitrary stuff. So, for example, I put my account team with their phone numbers on it—just as a kind of quick reference. I play on a baseball team so I have some baseball tips that I didn’t want to forget about. This is in alphabetical order. I have Books I want to read. An exercise program I was on and periodically go back on. Frequent flyer numbers. Golf tips. Funny expressions that my daughter says. Movies that I want to watch. I have a kind of list of names when my son was born about 8 months ago that we were kicking around for that. Some new business ideas. General numbers and passwords of things. Some nutrition advice. Quotes that I get a big kick out of. The Serenity prayer. Social Security numbers for my family. Websites that I wanted to visit.

Charley’s recitation of his list also shows us the value he accords to recording items—related to both work and personal-life—that could otherwise be lost in the “extended present.” It is notable that these encompass fragments as instrumental as “some new business ideas,” as relational as “funny expressions that my daughter says,” and as spiritual as “The Serenity Prayer.” However, the dilemmatic nature of this interpretive practice is present within this fragment of Charley’s discourse itself. First, Charley speaks of “movies that I want to watch” and “websites that I wanted to visit;” however, making lists of things to do is not the same as doing those things, nor does it guarantee they will take place. Second, even the notes that record ideas or events that have already taken place, rather than events that Charley would like to see take place (like watching a particular movie), must be consulted to have value. That is, if Charley writes down his daughter’s “funny expressions” or the Serenity Prayer, but never consults them, it is questionable whether these have been truly saved from being lost in the “extended present.”

The third form of discourse and interpretive practice positively reframes technologically mediated time that could be construed as an “extended present” as “flow.” Interestingly, the example of this discourse which is presented below is a continuation of the excerpt from Leon’s interview referenced above in the context of the negative side of efficiency. Thus, while Leon acknowledges that his greater efficiencies of work have not resulted in unfilled leisure time, but rather that he is “always doing something,” he does not frame this as a negative consequence.

I think [using the PDA] has allowed me to actually mix work and play more effectively. So once again I can say, being at home, sitting comfortably in the chair, my PDA is next to me and I think of something, an idea comes about, just pick it up and write it in. Or if I am preparing another class, I may just take a half an hour from reading the paper or whatever and I just got some nice ideas that come into my mind and I put them on the PDA.

Thus, Leon represents an experience that could be characterized as an “extended present” as the seamless integration of work and personal life through applying the standards of polychronic time (nonlinear, experiential time traditionally associated with home) to work rather than applying monochronic time (linear, task oriented time traditionally associated with work) to home [6]. In so doing, Leon represents his experience as something very like the optimal work experience characterized as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). At the same time even “flow” has a dilemmatic quality insofar as it is the antithesis of the process of “holding still” (Krone, 2001, p. 25). Krone maintains that holding still is to essential to discerning in our work that which is meaningful from that is not meaningful, what to resist and how to resist it, and preparing us for doing “good work” (i.e., work that is socially engaged).

Discursive resources and technological practices that address Problem 3, “Managing the relationship between work-time and life-time.” This repertoire includes two types of discursive resources and technological practices that address the problem of applying standards for managing work time to time in personal life. The first form of discourse references the calendaring of life events.

Charley: [I don’t calendar personal-life events] as rigorously as I do with work but I still put them in because it is one of those things to with, with two kids and you know all the kind of craziness that goes on, unless, you kind of calendar everything, you just never get it done. Changes around the house, doing stuff at church, volunteer work, I mean different things and unless you put it in…So we are probably, I mean, my wife shares the same affliction that I have in terms of probably being anal retentive when it comes to calendaring and stuff like that but it just got to a point where it was just the only way we could get all of the things we wanted to get done done.

Significantly, although critics of time management systems point to the erosion of the ethic of care when the ethic of efficacy is applied, all of the activities that Charley references are caring activities which Charley represents as needing to guard against the encroachments of work or even, perhaps, the passive forms of leisure that Robinson and Godbey (1997) maintain occupy so much of Americans’ free time.

Another positive aspect of calendaring personal life events is to give them the same force as work obligations in terms of commitments to be honored. One of the technological practices that a PDA affords in connection with this is attaching an audible alarm to a life event, which then reminds the user that a personal-life event is impending and that it is time to leave work, as described by Robert, a former engineer who is now the head of his own firm:

I would even have it beep [if I had to leave work at a particular time for a personal-life obligation] because I don’t put an alarm on all of these things. You know they have alarms that go off. So, something really crucial, and I am in the habit of always running late which is typically at the end of the day.

Of course, as noted in the problem statement, at the heart of the problem is the application of managerialism to relational interactions. Miranda, who has also praised the positive impact of the technology on her personal life, says this:

It’s made me anal. [ha-ha] It’s uh, wow, yeah. I think that that’s the thing is that you know, it has made me more organized and now I’m like I expect everything in my life to be as organized. And I never expect anyone to forget anything because I never do. Because I have a little bell that goes off 20 minutes before I’m supposed to be somewhere and to remind me in the morning of everything I need to do and to remind me throughout the day. Now I’m a really stickler for that kind of thing now, whereas before I wasn’t. Because you know I forgot things as well. But now I don’t tend to forget things. I don’t expect other people to either?

The second discourse represents a more positive, spontaneous application of the information management capabilities of the PDA in private life, very like what Hörning et al. (1999) have labeled the “gambler” pattern, which takes advantage of contingent matches between a technology and life events. For example, Philip, a young single information technology professional says:

I went down to Virginia and we were stuck in a traffic jam coming out of the mall and I had a whole mess of jokes on here. So, I went into Microsoft Word, pulled out the jokes and we were laughing. We didn’t even realize we were in a traffic jam. By the time we got out, it felt like we were never really there. The other time, we started this Poetry Expression group back in 1996 and like I said, we just had one yesterday. And I didn’t have my poetry on me. Well, I just had all my poetry in the thing. So I pulled it out and started reading it. And everybody was like “Wow! Oh, that is really good.” But if I didn’t have it...

This demonstrates that while the device’s time management techniques have the potential for routinizing life, the device also provides resources for expanding possibilities.

Philosophical Level

At the philosophical level we examine the situated ideals/ideologies that inform how the participants in this study define and respond to the problems created by flexible work arrangements. Underlying Problem 1, controlling the scope and structure of work, is the ideal of individualism, expressed as a preference for autonomous action and a strong belief in personal efficacy, even when participants also acknowledged their control over work was imperfect or possibly paradoxical.

A second, distinctly different ideal, reflected in both Problem 2, avoiding the “extended present,” and Problem 3, managing the relationship between work-time and life-time, might be labeled valuing being as much as doing (Clark, 2000; see also Halone, 2006 [direct link to article]) This ideal asserts the importance of non-rational, non-instrumental experiences and activities, such as maintaining interpersonal relationships, whether through spontaneous social interactions focused on the PDA technology itself, or using the PDA technology to protect relational time from the encroachments of work.

A third ideal that emerges is commitment to others; while this operates in tension with the first ideal’s emphasis on autonomy, it is consistent with its aspect of personal efficacy. This third ideal might be seen as a bridge between the first and second ideals, by combining the first ideal’s emphasis on instrumentality and the second ideal’s emphasis on more broadly humanistic values. The third ideal is reflected in material and discursive practices related to committing time to volunteer work, participation in collective social activities, and relationship or family activities. Participants expressed some ambivalence about planning personal time use, however. This may indicate engagement with the dilemma presented by applying an ethic of work—in which time is a resource to be allocated—to the realm of care, and yet feeling the need to apply the ethic of work in order to ensure that care activities actually took place. Yet Robinson and Godbey (1997) assert such concern may be misplaced because in the absence of such planning, many U.S. Americans fill their free time with passive pursuits like watching television, which leaves them feeling as if they have not had leisure time at all and keeps them disengaged from their communities.


The findings of this study affirm the appropriateness of a contingent view of flexible work arrangements and demonstrate the inadequacy of either a wholly positive assessment (in which flexibility unequivocally empowers workers by increasing their control over the conditions of their work) or an entirely negative assessment (in which flexibility invariably results in the expansion of work and the colonization of personal-life). Further, this study has identified specific interpretive and technological practices engaged in by knowledge workers to manage time and flexible work, and the dilemmas inherent in these practices. Looking across all of the problems and practices identified here, these dilemmas reflect dialectics of employee empowerment and organizational exploitation, structure and agency, commodified time versus time as process, being and doing.

The implication of the dialectical, dilemmatic view of flexible work reflected in our findings is necessity of reflective engagement and reflexive action. Following Giddens (1991), we conceive of individuals as “knowing human agents, who are continuously engaged in working at their self-identity” (p. 318). Giddens (1979) insists that all individuals, no matter how situated, have a good deal of penetration into the workings of the social institutions in which they participate, whether at the level of practical consciousness (in which tacit knowledge that the individual cannot formulate discursively is applied to actions) or discursive consciousness (in which knowledge can be articulated).

The most important aspect of discursive penetration in the context of this study is participants’ engagement with the dilemmatic aspects of their own interpretive practices. This engagement was variably displayed in the interview accounts: the dilemma could be unacknowledged, it could be addressed with a rhetoric of “balance,” or it could be addressed dialectically. Looking back to the illustrations from participants’ accounts, we can see an example of an unacknowledged dilemma in Charley’s description of his notes. The interpretive practice he engages in to address the problem of avoiding the “extended present” does not acknowledge the dilemma that inheres in his material and interpretive practices; that is, he does not display recognition of the possibility that making the notes constitutes only part of what is required to escape the extended present. The notes must be consulted as well, and acted upon. Otherwise, his technological and interpretive practices create only the illusion of efficacy.

A rhetoric of balance constitutes one of two forms of active engagement with the dilemmas associated with flexible work. For example, Frank acknowledges that having the ability to do work anytime and anywhere creates the possibility of doing more work, yet the same technologies also make it possible for him to work more efficiently. He rhetorically mediates between the discourse of exploitation and the discourse of empowerment by explicitly invoking the construct of “balance” in the sense of tradeoff. He displays his awareness of the tension, but rhetorically positions the two aspects of the tension as equally weighted.

The dialectical approach constitutes a second form of active engagement with the dilemmas associated with flexible work (see Golden, Kirby, & Jorgenson, 2006 for a review of research using a dialectical framework for examining work-life interrelationships). It differs from the rhetoric of balance because it does not invoke any linguistic device to mediate between the two halves of the dilemma. They are simply juxtaposed, one with the other. So, as noted earlier, Leon’s observation that using the PDA has made him more efficient, but that the time saved is simply filled with other things is immediately followed, without transition, by a reframing of the “extended present” as “flow.”

Leon: Yea... Well, I don't know if I could say. It is hard to say. There is no vacuum in my life. I am always doing something.

Cheryl: Right. Right.

Leon: I think it has allowed me to actually mix work and play more effectively. So once again I can say being at home, sitting comfortably in the chair, my PDA is next to me and I think of something, an idea comes about, just pick it up and write it in. Or if I am preparing another class, I may just take a half an hour from reading the paper or whatever and I just got some nice ideas that come into my mind and I put them on the PDA.

The variation in participants’ engagement with the dilemmas inherent in their interpretive and technological practices underscores the need for reflexivity if individuals’ experiences are not to be dominated by the negative potentialities of flexible work. A value in studies such as this lies in helping to surface dilemmas and contributing to public discourses for characterizing flexible work arrangements and technologically mediated time management. This discourse then becomes an additional resource that individuals can draw upon in their interpretive practices.

Tietze and Musson (2002), examining the experiences of teleworkers, contrast Sennett’s (1998) position on the “corrosive” effects of flexible work arrangements on individual character with Giddens’ more positive evaluation of arrangements that require individuals to “become authors of their own lives” (p. 319). Based on our findings here, we concur that reflective engagement and reflexive action are necessary and appropriate responses to coping with the requirements of a task oriented, globalized workplace, to advance in one’s career, and participate actively in personal life. Moreover, we contend there are significant disadvantages to keeping the work-life boundary impermeable, though it undeniably affords some protection from what Everingham (2002) refers to as the “unfettered expansion of the interests of capital” (p. 348).

The loosening of traditional scripts for social behavior inevitably results in both increased opportunity and increased anxiety. The contingent, dilemmatic view presented here acknowledges the hazards of flexible work as well as its potential for empowerment, and calls for heightened reflexivity as an essential component of the associated material and interpretive practices. The only alternative is the creation of more confining scripts that privilege particular work-life configurations. Therefore, to the complaint that flexible work places the burden of arranging the relationship between work and personal life squarely on the individual (Brannen, 2005; Everingham, 2002), we respond that this is simply the inescapable dilemma that comes with increased autonomy. As the self-employed have always known, when you are your own boss, you are also your own employee.


Flexible work arrangements complicate how individuals manage their relationships to their employing organization, but at the same time create new possibilities. This study has contributed to our understanding of how individuals manage flexible work arrangements and time by identifying specific technological and interpretive practices that respond to the dilemmatic qualities of these arrangements and underscoring the importance of reflexivity.

We acknowledge constraints on generalizing from this study, given the limited number of participants and range of occupations represented, and the nature of the data elicited. Future hresearch in this area might focus on an organizationally based group of participants so that specific organizational policies on workplace flexibility could be examined in more detail for the interpretive practices through which individuals translate policies into action (see Kirby & Krone, 2002). Future research should also look more specifically at how the meanings of flexibility and options for managing time are co-constructed outside of the interview context with significant others at work and at home to expand the contexts for interactional sense-making represented in studies of work-life interrelationships. Another direction for future research is the careful consideration of the technology’s potential for gender-related empowerment and disempowerment, in response to the argument that mobile technologies, by expanding women’s capacity for caretaking, reinforce gender-based inequities in this area (Rakow & Navarro, 1993). We see the potential for research in this area (as intellectual ideology moves into the ideology of everyday life) to heighten individuals’ level of discursive penetration into the conditions of flexible work arrangements and technologically mediated time in order to maximize the possibilities for empowerment while never losing sight of the constraints on autonomy that are intrinsic to human social life.


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We would like to express our gratitude to the PDA users who so generously shared their time and experiences with us. We would also like to thank Erika Kirby and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, which helped to shape the final form of this manuscript. An earlier version of this manuscript was presented at the 2005 convention of the National Communication Association in Boston.


[1] Various forms of work arrangements are included under the general umbrella of “flexibility”: flexibility in terms of the number of hours worked, or availability of reduced work arrangements; flexibility in terms of the starting and ending time of work (though still physically taking place at the employing organization), which can include flex-time, compressed workweeks, job sharing (Barnett, Gordon, Gareis, & Morgan, 2004); flexibility in terms of the place at which work is performed, sometimes in the form of complete full-time teleworking (i.e., work that is mediated by information and communication technology), sometimes in the form of occasional teleworking, sometimes undertaken to accommodate needs of workers to be at home, and sometimes undertaken in order to meet task deadlines (Brannen, 2005; Ellison, 2005; Hylmö & Buzzanell, 2002; Latour, 1992; Tietze & Musson, 2002a).

[2] The important distinction here is the contrast between the ideology of everyday life and intellectual ideology, which Billig et al. (1988) define as formal systems of thought produced by “professional thinkers” (p. 27). Billig and colleagues observe that whereas most intellectual ideologies are premised on the “assumption of internal consistency” (p. 30), the “dilemmatic approach, by contrast does not start with the assumption that there is an ‘inner unity’ to schemata or ideologies. By assuming that there are contrary themes, a different image of the thinker can emerge. The person is not necessarily pushed into an unthinking obedience, in which conformity to ritual has replaced deliberation. Ideology may produce such conformity, but it can also provide the dilemmatic elements which enable deliberation to occur” (p. 31).

[3] The Franklin/Covey system emphasizes not just the efficient accomplishment of everyday tasks but the accomplishment of tasks as steps toward the achievement of larger goals tied to an individual’s core values (Carlone, 2001; Jackson, 1999). Another popular system, also emphasizing the integration of core values and goals with daily tasks, is the Life Balance system designed by Llamagraphics (Caporael & Xie, 2003; Kirvin, 2004).

[4] The questionnaire included a set of multiple-choice questions on participants’ backgrounds, including their work and home situations as well as their leisure activities; a set of Likert-scale and open-ended questions assessing participants’ perceptions of their own work-life relationships; a set of multiple-choice and open-ended questions on PDA acquisition; a set of multiple-choice and open-ended questions on routines for PDA use; a 24-item instrument exploring participants’ decision-making strategies for using PDAs; and a set of multiple-choice, open-ended, and Likert-scale questions assessing participants’ satisfaction with the PDA as well as the perceived impact of the PDA on work and life.

[5] The “technical level” portion of the discourse analysis presented here builds on our previous analysis of the interview accounts for the purpose of examining the discursive and technological management of work-life boundaries (Golden & Geisler, 2005). The management of flexible work and time draw on some of the same discursive resources as boundary management; this analysis examines how those resources and others function to accomplish a related but still distinctly different set of social actions. It is in the nature of the action orientation to language inherent in discursive psychology and action-implicative discourse analysis that the same discourse may be construed as accomplishing more than one thing.

[6] Daly (1996), building on the work of Edward T. Hall, identifies work with one sort of time experience and home life with another. Work has been identified with “ monochronic time,” a “pattern of sequential behavior that is shaped schedules, is task oriented, and is open to evaluations of success or failure” (Daly, 1996, p. 148). Home life has been identified with “ polychronic time,” which is “patterned by a set of simultaneous interactions, focused on the present, and shaped by the involvement of people in transactions” (Daly, 1996, p. 148). These time-related constructs connect to the criticism of flexible work arrangements on the grounds that erosion of spatiotemporal boundaries between work and home results in the importation of monochronic time use patterns into private life.

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