There has been lots of press attention on a major European corporation’s announcement that email access will be turned off at night, to improve employees’ work-life balance. On the face of it, this is a positive, employee-centric move by a major business. But as usual when it comes to work-life balance, it’s just not that simple.
Why has this come about?
Blackberrys (and similar devices) allow always-on instant access to corporate email, which can represent a double-edged sword. Email doesn’t respect boundaries and unless turned off, will continue to arrive in the employee’s in-box – and in the case of Blackberrys – continue to beep well into their private time in the evening. I’ve heard employees describe attempts to deal with the never-ending stream of business emails as trying to drink from a garden hose!
Why is this a problem?
Basically, dealing with work-related email constitutes work. Doing this on your own time represents one form of the work domain negatively impacting the personal domain. Perhaps. Why perhaps? Well, if an employee decides that it will make their life easier to deal with the email in hand (e.g. avoiding a crisis the following day, providing support to a key client etc) and they do this on an ad hoc (as opposed to permanent) basis, this technology is providing valuable flexibility.
However…let’s look at how two hypothetical employees use their work email in the evening.
Consider the London-based employee of a global corporation who wakes up to an in-box full of email from her colleagues in the Hong Kong office. As she finishes her formal working day, the emails start to flood in from her colleagues in California. Do these colleagues expect a response immediately? Perhaps. But as she continues to write back to them, her working day continues, bleeding into the time she had set aside for dinner with old friends. Receiving these emails, her American colleagues assume she is still working and write back, continuing the cycle into the evening.
Another employee may leave the office on time to ensure she is home to have dinner with her family and then put her children to bed. She then picks up her Blackberry and processes the key urgent emails that have arrived while she was spending quality time with her family. For her, this out-of-hours access to corporate email represents a form of flexibility that permits her to work around the other important elements in her life.
Email is a tool and like all tools, it can be mis-used in the wrong hands. Employees can get into dysfunctional email habits which negatively blur the boundaries between work and home.
However, turning off access to email at night may restrict some employees’ work flexibility and may indeed result in them working longer hours in the office or feeling out of the loop in the evening. Think about how the second employee’s working arrangements might change without evening access to her email.
I would pose the following questions to other businesses considering a similar move:
1 – Is this on the basis of a real or perceived beed from employees? Is it based on employee opinion data or the vocal complaints of a few?
2 – Are those employees accessing emails late at night doing so out of necessity or choice? In other words, is evening email use a result of unmanageable workload? Is their wellbeing and productivity suffering as a result?
3 – Are senior stakeholders setting / maintaining the tone by sending or responding to emails late at night? Could the problem lie at the top? Employees may feel more pressure to respond to an email from a senior stakeholder.
4 – Could restricting access to email actually remove elements of work flexibility for some employees? May this actually fly in the face of attempts to increase diversity in the workplace?
5 – Finally, instead of turning off email access for all, have they considered support for this employees finding it difficult and offering coaching or time-management training to help them?
As with all things related to work-life balance, one size does not fit all. But organisations concerned about “out of hours” email use among their employees should look at both the symptoms but also the potential causes of this. Turning off the emails themselves might not be the best-fit solution.
The problem (and potential solutions) may not lie in the technology itself but instead the organisation’s unspoken expectations regarding availability in the evenings.