Banning out-of-hours emails? Madness. Here’s 3 ways to stop email ruling our lives.
Sending emails outside of work hours isn’t the problem. It’s the expectation set by managers to respond, employees’ compulsion to do so — and email itself.
In a recent BBC article, trade union Prospect is calling on the U.K. Government to ban managers from “routinely emailing or calling” outside of set working hours. The article goes on to say that Prospect’s proposal could include emails being automatically deleted to prevent people checking their inbox outside of work hours.
As extreme measures go, this is up there. I understand the issue but I’ve certainly never experienced it myself. Working in Communications, it’s a little different — there’s an expectation that when a crisis hits, you’re effectively on-call to step in — but I’ve never felt compelled to check my email constantly, either in the late evening, at the weekend or while on holiday.
The issue isn’t that emails are being sent outside of work hours; in my opinion, there are some fundamental problems going on here:
First, it’s email itself. We all love to hate it, but it’s an essential part of what we do every day as ‘knowledge workers.’ I was at a conference in 2010 at which an executive from an up-and-coming collaboration software company boldly claimed that email would be dead in five years. Fat chance. In 2020, according to Statista, more than 300bn emails were sent worldwide, a year-on-year increase that is set to continue for years to come despite the rise of social media.
But it rules our working lives – it’s often the first thing people do in the morning. A 2016 Forbes article claimed that the average person [in North America] checked their email 15 times a day with two-thirds saying they checked their email within an hour of waking up. More worryingly, a study by the University of British Columbia found that checking inbox more frequently throughout the day increased stress levels.
Secondly, it’s culture. The new presenteeism is ‘onlineism’ (yes, I just coined that – there’s probably a better word being used somewhere). In the mid- to post-COVID working world, more workers will be wanting to prove that they’re working by being online. Replying to an email is a sure sign you’re still there at your desk, diligently beavering away. And – for goodness’ sake – don’t lock your workstation or step away from your desk for more than 5 minutes; otherwise, your IM client will proclaim your status as “Away” and immediately draw attention from your overbearing line manager who is surely keeping a watchful eye over your every move.
Wow. I hope I never work at a company like that. And I’m certainly not that kind of line manager. While I first joined HSBC, I noticed that my entire team stayed at their desk later than 6pm, at which point I was putting on my coat to head home and help out with our then-10-month-old son. After a week or two, I told one of the team in a one-to-one meeting that it was like people were afraid that their stakeholders were watching when they left – she replied: “they are.” After that, I spoke to the whole team and set down my expectations, which was essentially that I didn’t want them feeling like they had to be at their desk for any longer than required and if there were any mutterings from stakeholders, I’d deal with them (there weren’t – it was simply a misplaced perception).
Similarly, it seems, line managers and senior stakeholders at some organisations expect to have a reply back to an email ‘by return.’ This certainly doesn’t help those stress levels.
Finally, it’s about addiction. Mobile devices are addictive. The flashing red light of a Blackberry provided a Pavlov’s dog-like reaction to new email arriving. Nowadays it’s a ping or a vibration. We get notifications and badges for apps that distract our attention. We feel lost without our precious devices (it even has a name: nomophobia). And mobile phones contribute to this problem with checking email, as they’re always with us and if it’s a work-issued or Bring-Your-Own-Device phone, the temptation to check email is there when you’re browsing Facebook of an evening. Cue more stress. (We’re really not helping ourselves, are we?!)
I spoke to my Mum’s retired neighbour last week about this as she’d read the same BBC article. She said that her boss used to send her emails in the evening but it was impossible to reply back in those days as she only had access to email at the office. Similarly, an old boss of mine used to wake in the middle of the night, have an idea and send an email to people from the Blackberry he had on his bedside table, before returning to his slumber. I’d frequently get into the office to find emails sent at 1:23am, 3:14am, 4:27am, etc. (none of which required a reply ‘by return’, thank goodness. And just as well).
Two more things to add really quickly:
- ‘Work hours’ is an outdated term that is quickly becoming irrelevant. Even in the pre-COVID world, employees were flexing their weekly hours, juggling home life with work life so that they could balance demands. 3–3:30pm-ish at the moment is ‘outside of work hours’ for me, as I collect my son from school. 6–7pm is back inside work hours – sometimes – as I enjoy the lack of meetings to carry on with some tasks (which may or may not include emailing my team about things I don’t expect an immediate reply to…).
- A globally-dispersed workforce makes ‘outside work hours’ an almost impossible concept. If I send an early-morning email – U.K. time – to my U.S.-based colleague, I don’t expect an immediate reply; same if I send something to Australia at 3pm BST. Again, it comes back to culture.
To tackle these issues, I propose a solution with three, relatively simple suggestions:
- Managers need to be clear about their expectations with regards to email response. My team knows that I don’t require an immediate response to any email unless it says so in the subject line. And that happens rarely. If I need someone urgently outside of their working hours, I’ll send an apologetic text message.
- Employees need to have the discipline to step away from work when they’re outside of their own working pattern. When they log off their laptop, it’s time to ignore new emails. Switch off that work phone. Give your brain time to recharge. I certainly do — and expect the same of my team.
- We all need to control email, not be controlled by it. Rather than checking emails first thing in the morning and being ruled by the demands placed on us, we should be looking at our priority objectives and cracking on with those before looking at other people’s requests and priorities. Cal Newport in Deep Work suggests having specific times throughout the day to check email. Personally, I don’t open my email first thing and I don’t have it as the main screen open on my laptop all day – I have my To Do list and my calendar, so I know when I have upcoming meetings and stretches of free time for project work.
While we allow our inboxes to rule our entire lives – whether as a manager-set expectation or a self-inflicted compulsion – these somewhat bizarre proposals to legally outlaw late-night emails will continue to be put forward.