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Melissa Mazmanian and Christine Beckman’s new book detailing technology use by nine families explores how working parents navigate today’s digital world. Yet their findings move well beyond the role of technology, portraying a cultural landscape in which exhaustion is the norm, work seems never-ending and family is all consuming — even before a global pandemic started making everything more challenging.

Melissa Mazmanian and Christine M. Beckman, organizational scholars with a shared background in management and sociological perspectives.
Melissa Mazmanian and Christine M. Beckman, organizational scholars with a shared background in management and sociological perspectives. (Photo credit: Sharon Shu)

When it comes to managing responsibilities at work and at home, especially in families with young children, what role does technology play? Does technology actually help busy professionals manage complicated lives? When Melissa Mazmanian first set out to study the effect of technology on the “life” side of the work-life balance, she didn’t realize how much her focus would branch out beyond technology use. The associate professor of informatics in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) designed and conducted an ethnographic study with her colleague at the University of Southern California, Christine M. Beckman, professor and Price Family Chair in Social Innovation in the Sol Price School of Public Policy. Their new book, Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working and Parenting in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2020), details what they learned while embedding themselves into the daily lives of nine Southern California families. Here, Mazmanian talks about what prompted their research and how Dreams of the Overworked aims to help people better understand and navigate the myths and realities of obtaining a work-life balance in today’s digital world. She also touches on how the current global pandemic has further complicated this balance with the collapse of the work-home boundary and our increased reliance on technology.

What was your motivation for writing this book?
Years and years ago, back when I was in graduate school, I became interested in the effect of smartphones on people’s experience at work, and my dissertation was about BlackBerries when they were still new and exciting devices. I looked at how these early smartphones shaped power and cultural dynamics in the workplace. One key finding was that BlackBerries affected people’s home lives as much as their experience at work. When I became a professor and realized I had the chance to envision a whole new research project, I came to the realization that nobody had actually deeply looked at the effect of technologies on the “life” side of the work-life balance. Most of the work-life balance literature is based on surveys or interviews conducted with people at their workplaces, asking them about their experiences outside of work. I was trained in ethnography, which is a more in-depth research technique where you observe and engage with people over a longer period of time. Christine and I didn’t see many ethnographic explorations of home from the work-life perspective, so that was the impetus for trying to understand how busy professionals manage the day-to-day of work and family and the role of technology in navigating the various demands.

How were you able to embed yourself into the lives of these nine families?
Christine and I decided to do this together. We spent time brainstorming how we could study these families in their homes without freaking them out entirely — what that could look like for both them and us. We’re both organizational scholars trained in management research, so we went to a company and we got permission to study the employees. We spent about six months doing research, conducting over 90 interviews with both employees and their spouses. And while that was a separate study, we were able to leverage some of those contacts. We approached employees of the company who, at that point, we knew from hanging out in their meetings and, in some cases, talking with their spouse, and we asked if they would be willing to participate in this second study. A surprising number said yes and let us into their homes. We ended up spending about 80 hours with each of nine families. And because we were familiar with their workplace, it was quite easy for them to talk about the specifics of navigating their job and life outside work. We also have a lovely mix of family structures, including two single parents, one stay-at-home father, one stay-at-home mother, and dual working parents. So we are able to represent a variety of configurations.

What surprised you the most?
We went into this with the idea that we were studying technology use in busy families. What we didn’t really anticipate was that, of course, we were then also studying the messiness of everyday life — exercise, parenting, food consumption, cleaning the house, etc. So at the end, we had to step back and say, what did we really see, what do we want to write about, and what is the core story here? Technology is definitely still a piece of it, but it’s only one thread.

What we ended up writing about was these dominant mythologies that busy professionals live in terms of. We outline the dominant myths of perfection that are prevalent in our society: the ideal worker, the perfect parent, and the ultimate body. When we feel guilty about ourselves, it’s probably because we feel we haven’t lived up to one or multiple aspects of these myths. Of course, it’s truly impossible to live up to even one of these ideals, and yet working parents are navigating all three.

So where does technology fit into all this?
The technology story ends up being complicated. We all use tools of connectivity — texting, email, and so forth — and they DO, in fact, help us do more. For example, I can occasionally feel like I am able to be both a “perfect” parent and “ideal” worker at the same time because my smartphone might allow me to leave work and go to my kid’s game. It is powerful to have flexibility and feel some control over where and when I work – even if it means answering a few emails on the sidelines.

But, the sneaky thing about these technologies is that when everyone is using them, our expectations of each other shift. Now, to be a good colleague, you’re answering emails at 10 p.m. (or later). So, even though the technology helps us do more, it doesn’t actually allow us to live up to the myths of perfection because expectations of what it means to be an ideal worker, be a perfect parent or have the ultimate body are ratcheting up at the same time.

We get caught in this trap where we are doing more and more — being more available both to our kids and to our colleagues, and even to our bodies (think about fitness counters, exercise apps and social media posts). In many ways, technology is a fleeting solution to pressing problems. It might help us manage our lives and coordinate in the moment. But when you look at the bigger picture, our expectations of what technology should allow us to do undermines our ability to feel like we’re able to live up to any of these myths, never mind all three of them. It is very difficult to feel satisfied about everyday accomplishments.

You also talk about this idea of scaffolding. What is it, and does it help perpetuate these myths?
The first section of our book talks about the myths, and the second section looks at technology and the ratcheting spiral of expectations. In the third section, we step back and say, “Hold on — many people appear to be doing it all, at least to a large degree — so how are they doing it?” That’s where we dig down into the different ways that various families create a structure of scaffolding that allows certain parents to work, parent and take care of their body in idealized ways. We review the different forms of invisible work that go into running a home and provide a language for families to begin to see this work and talk about who is doing what. We’re very, very clear that there’s no right or wrong way to manage everything; we’re looking at how families actually handle the physical, mental, coordinating and emotional labor that goes into running a home. It is really quite fascinating.

We focus on four kinds of invisible work: physical, such as cleaning or grocery shopping; mental, such as writing the grocery list or scheduling a doctor’s appointment; coordinating, maybe lining up a babysitter or finding another parent to take a child to practice; and emotional, which involves taking time to ensure that those who help the family (babysitters, grandparents, housecleaners) feel appreciated. In these nine families, some men did a fair amount of invisible work, but this is not often the case. Usually women take on more of these tasks — especially the mental, coordinating and emotional work that is doubly invisible.

I’ll tell a great story to illustrate this. So we —my co-author and I — have a couple that we’re both friends with. They’re working professionals and they agreed to give comments on an early version of the book. It must have inspired some serious thinking between them because a few months ago I ran into the husband at a coffee shop. We said hi to each other and said we should get together sometime, and without thinking I offered to text his wife. Then I went and sat down. Minutes later, he came over to my table. “I think I should make plans for our families to have dinner,” he said. “I’m trying to rethink my role in my relationship and family, and since I’m here, I should make the plans.” When we later met up for dinner, his wife said having him make the plans was the best. So in that small way, I think he recognized those gender roles of coordinating and planning. This is a very small example, but hopefully we can provide that language and insight. Families, and especially women, are navigating myriad forms of invisible labor every day.

book cover for Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working and Parenting in the Digital Age

Who is the target audience, and what do you want readers to take away from this book?
The book is written for any working professional (or aspiring working professional). We’re academics, but it’s not written as an academic book. It’s the stories of these people’s lives. We bring you into the everyday in a way that is hopefully interesting and thought-provoking. We also included copious footnotes so that if you are a scholar or want to use the book as a learning tool, it is chock full of resources in the endnotes.

As for the takeaway message, we thought deeply about this. We didn’t want to leave our readers thinking that there’s no hope! At the same time, we also didn’t want to give them more to do. We recognize that people are already overtaxed trying to live up to impossible ideals. We also recognize that our society would benefit from systemic change in federal and organizational policies that that would go a long way in helping parents. But there is much we can do as individuals, as families, at work and in our communities. So, we go through each of these levels and provide practical advice about what people can actually do in the short term and long term. We don’t expect readers to do all of these things, but we help them think about how to take action at these different levels so they can figure out what works for them.

I also think the book would be quite interesting for college students. I teach undergrads all the time, and this is the kind of book that would help them think about their lives going forward so they could make conscious decisions about their dream job, future family and what matters to them in the long run.

Do you have any thoughts on how this all relates to the current global pandemic?
One issue this book brings into the foreground is that that certain people are able to engage in the workplace with a degree of dedication or energy because they have this army of support behind them, and that’s all being thrown up in the air. For many families, the scaffolding they rely on has completely fallen apart. The importance of scaffolding can no longer be ignored. What this means for who is able to dedicate time and energy to the workplace and what organizations can do to support workers is just beginning to become apparent.

From more of a society level, an implication of this work is the effect on people who work in jobs that scaffold working professionals. A lot of the outside help people rely on (housekeepers, caregivers and others) are now in very precarious situations. So whatever those working professionals who keep their jobs during the pandemic can do to continue that support is absolutely critical. There is a bigger issue about gendered labor and prosperity and that social safety net for the people who help the working professionals. Their precarity is a real tragedy. We need to support the people who support us.

As for the technology… I don’t want to demonize it. I mean, can you imagine if this pandemic happened 30 years ago, without today’s videoconferencing and all the tools we use? That said, the work-home boundary just collapsed. People would say that was true before, but now it has fully collapsed. It’s not the fault of the technology, but as people who are trying to organize together, we need to be more explicit with ourselves and each other about what does constant connectivity mean and how do we allow certain people to have dedicated or predictable time off. How do you build in downtime? I just worked with UCI on coming up with a strategy for rotating folks off during a crisis, like this global pandemic, because you need to build in downtime while making sure you have sufficient coverage. [The resulting document, “Continuity Planning and Rotational Operations During Coronavirus Emergency Management at UCI,” was distributed to campus leaders the end of March.]

We need to remember that technology is this amazing capacity and that we use it in all kinds of fascinating ways. Technology can enhance our individual and collective capacities. But so much of how technology is used and experienced is fundamentally shaped by expectations and assumptions of those around us. And so, norms and values developed in these connections is really what shapes our technology use. The technology itself is awesome. But we need to pay greater attention to how our expectations and assumptions shape its effect on our lives.

Shani Murray