Work-Family Conflict at the Team Level

Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis of Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Pennsylvania, Annemarije Oosterwaal of Utrecht University and Arnold B. Bakker of Erasmus University Rotterdam published “Managing Family Demands in Teams: The Role of Social Support at Work” in Group & Organization Management. To view other OnlineFirst articles, please click here. Dr. Ten Brummelhuis kindly provided some background on the article.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

As work-family researchers, we noticed that almost all studies address the work-family interface at the individual level. These studies indicated that employees may be hindered in performing optimally at work when they are overloaded at home with family responsibilities. However, nowadays, jobs are often organized in a team form, whereby employees depend on each other. Therefore, we thought it would be important to investigate what happens at the team level when family life interferes with work. For example, what happens if family life keeps employees from doing their job? Will co-workers be hindered then as well? And, perhaps more important, we questioned what can be done about this undesirable situation. Therefore, we examined whether support at work (understanding from supervisors for family responsibilities, co-workers that stand in when someone is absent) helped to prevent any negative consequences of family overload on teamwork.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Yes. Whereas we had thought that family demands would mainly harm team processes, we found that it could actually benefit the cooperative atmosphere in the team. Team cooperation was higher when team members had, on average, high family demands, but when the team had a policy whereby they would stand in for team members that had unforeseen family responsibilities. Thus, the combination of high responsibilities and helping out each other resulted in better intra-team relationships and benefitted the overall team performance.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

We hope this study emphasizes that employees’ family life is something that cannot be disregarded by the work environment. Both for research and practice, this means that the family domain should be taken into account when one wishes to explain work outcomes. More specifically, our study indicates that work-family research should look further than individual outcomes of family life. Not only employees’ own work performance may be affected by their family life, but also the outcomes of peers, and the overall team. For researchers examining team outcomes, it might be worthwhile to look beyond the organizational border, including team members’ family demands and resources when they aim to explain team outcomes. Finally, for practice, our study underscores the importance of adequate support for team members who combine work and family tasks. In teams that had family-supportive supervision and perceived the organizational culture as family responsive, high family demands did not impair team  performance. Also, creating a cooperative team climate may be a good strategy for managers: when co-workers who were willing to help each other in family emergency situations, team cooperation even increased, and supervisors rated the work performance of those teams higher.

What, If Anything, Would You Do Differently If You Could Go Back And Do This Study Again?

If it would be possible to go back and do this study again, we would also include the possible resources that employees may have at home, that benefit their performance. We already know that employees are more inspired and engaged at work when they don’t experience conflict between their work and family life, and that they can “contaminate” peers with this positive feeling (Ten Brummelhuis, Bakker, & Euwema, 2010, Journal of Vocational Behavior). It would be interesting to examine whether employees who derive much pleasure and fulfillment from their family life, also perform better at work, and whether this fosters team processes and the overall team performance.

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