Anna Cox on family, work & strategies for making the changes we want

Anna Cox is a Reader and Deputy Director at the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC). Anna shares her early career experiences, the challenge of lecturing a large class, and how she and her partner created flexible work practices to manage family and work. She also talks about the research studies she and her students have been doing on ‘work life balance’, including the ways in which people are different, and strategies such as creating microboundaries and frictions to help us take more control of our work.

“The longer people are in this job, the more busy they get. You always seem to get more stuff. No-one is ever going to take anything away from you. So therefore it is down to you to say no to things and that’s really hard. I think lots of people struggle with that.”

“Making changes is hard so we need to be thinking, what are the strategies that will help us make the changes we want to make.”

She talks about (times approximate) …

1:45 Background in cognitive science and HCI, and early career learning curves e.g., performing in front of large classes, dressing the part, being mistaken for a student instead of the lecturer, coming to be an institution

10:10 Taking a risk, giving up a permanent job for a temporary one in moving to UCL to pursue a research career

12:35 Co-editing an HCI textbook and taking maternity leave during the process

15:55 Experience of having first child, maternity leave, returning to work and taking advantage of being able to work flexibly to juggle family, partner needs….but all parties needing to be flexible

 22:13 “I suppose some people might think that I had to compromise on things like travel but I’d never really it very much so at the time it never felt like something I was giving up”

24:05 Getting research funding on balance, through an unusual ‘sandpit’ process mixing an initial face to face and then virtual meetings (interesting experiences of getting ‘kicked out’ of the environment but where participants didn’t feel like they had been able to go through the usual ‘goodbye’ rituals)

27:29 Digital Epiphanies project and a network (Balance Network) funded, and using a PhD student to extend that work

28:13 What is a Digital Epiphany? Related to post traumatic growth, can we track computer activity and give people feedback so that they get to their own epiphany about balance?

30:45 Studying academics, and professional services staff, and patterns of work relative to role and type of life they want and helping people understand what their preferences are so they can create the support they need

33:23 And what can an organization do – not have one policy for everyone!

34:09 “The longer people are in this job, the more busy they get. You always seem to get more stuff. No-one is ever going to take anything away from you. So therefore it is down to you to say no to things and that’s really hard. I think lots of people struggle with that.”

34:45 Work on how people handle their email, and what is the best way to handle it; the difficulty people had in following instructions about either keeping on top of email or only looking at it once a day; more efficient if they try to minimize time dealing with email in clearly defined times, less disruptive to rest of work and deal with email quicker

36:38 Work of Marta and how people use smart watches to manage when and how they respond to messages. The strategies people are adopting to work around the technologies and evolving practices.

41:50 Own use of insights from the studies? Going through stages of using tools to track how much time working on the computer; times of year particularly busy that can be predictable but never really plan for it; putting in work around deadlines; using tools to help justify taking a break afterwards.

43:13 “Is the reason that there is so much on my to do list that I don’t work enough? And it was very interesting to track how much time I worked and then say actually I do enough. And there is just too much work. I feel like I need that evidence.”

43:55 Times switching off email from the phone, removing work account – creating micro-boundaries, to make it harder to slip back into behavior you don’t want to do

45:05 Other examples of micro-boundaries: different email accounts, different devices and apps; creating frictions; becoming more conscious of what you are doing and reflecting on data that tells how we are living our lives;

47:35 “But making changes is hard so we need to also be thinking what are the strategies that will help us make the changes we want to make”

49:05 Questionnaires for understanding work-life boundary preferences, and then thinking about what strategies to adopt to help us gain control again

51:35 Reflecting on own personal balance – overall pretty happy. But the irony of the enormous work to put together the Athena Swan award submission in part about the things to support flexibility and balance.

53:40 Getting too much? “You recognize things when the other things you want to do in your life start becoming more difficult to include… then that is a good sign you need to think about what you are doing and change things”

55:05 Broader changes? Creating a culture where more and more papers become expected and impact on early career researchers. Thinking about number of deadlines, more journal focus, job ads/promotions, more men taking parental leave and its influence on understanding of working part time, and all of us thinking about working less and spending more time on things we care about.

58:00 Getting ideas to try to out from other podcast stories; tells a similar story of seeing in an application about someone holding a daily stand up meeting for their team, and then implementing that for her team on Slack using a bot for a daily check-in by the whole team; advantages of increased visibility all round

1:04:45 Good academic life – getting to spend lots of time with her kids and feeling challenged and fulfilled at work and having control over what you do at work.

1:05:40 End

Related links

Digital Boundaries Project

Related publications including microboundary papers:

Microboundary strategies booklet & self-study diary on communication habits

Marta Cecchinato – research on work-life-balance

Links to questionnaires:

Kossek, Ellen Ernst. "Managing work life boundaries in the digital age." Organizational Dynamics 45.3 (2016): 258-270.

Kossek, Ellen Ernst, et al. "Work–nonwork boundary management profiles: A person-centered approach." Journal of Vocational Behavior 81.1 (2012): 112-128.