Without firm rules for emailing employees after hours, you may be jeopardizing the health of your employees, their family, and the company’s culture.
Researchers from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business recently published a study detailing the ways bad email protocol can be harmful to all the parties listed above. Today on the Bonfyre Breakdown, we’re taking a closer look at this study, as well as analysis from Maura Thomas, an international speaker and trainer, who has her own thoughts on how this phenomenon forms.
The problem with emailing employees after hours
In August of this year, William Becker, an associate professor of management at Virginia Tech, published a study building on the rapidly growing body of evidence that shows when employees use their work email after hours, it manifests in problems at home. Previous findings show this behavior leads to heightened anxiety, interpersonal conflict, and adverse health effects for not only the employees but also their family members.
What’s notable about the study from Becker’s team, however, is that the source of these negative effects does not come from the actual act of performing work at home after hours. Rather, these adverse conditions stem from the expectation that emailing employees after hours creates. To quote Virginia Tech’s own reporting on the study:
“Their new study, [Becker] said, demonstrates that employees do not need to spend actual time on work in their off-hours to experience the harmful effects,” author Sookhan Ho writes. “The mere expectations of availability increase strain for employees and their significant others–even when employees do not engage in actual work during nonwork time.”
For the Harvard Business Review, Thomas uses Becker’s study as a springboard to detail the ways this vicious cycle of anxiety and misery works, which we’ll examine more closely below.
Why you need rules for emailing employees after hours
Earlier this year, People and Communications Consultant Jennifer Oertli detailed for us what we can learn from the early days of email and how it applies to the communications tools we use at work today. She discussed how email went through “growing pains,” brought on by people not knowing how to engage with the platform.
“Over time as email “matured,” people learned the capabilities, limitations, and etiquette of the medium,” Oertli writes. “More exciting social technology emerged to feed our need for informal digital communications, while email assumed position in the business world as a default tool for ‘important’ communications.”
While it is true that we understand how to use email much better today than in the early 2000s, email has not remained a stagnant medium in the intervening years. While the core functionality of email remains largely unchanged, our access to it has greatly expanded over time. Barring workplaces with firm security restrictions, it is easier than ever for employees to access work email from pretty much anywhere, any time they want.
As Thomas elaborates, when we let unspoken rules dictate the way we use communications tools, it creates problems for employees, the company, and the culture that envelopes them.
First, when employees leave work, they naturally have a hard time “turning off” the habitual behaviors that cause them to check their email while on-the-job. Thomas says leaders are also prone to these behaviors. But when leaders do not codify a set of rules for after-hours work communications they create instead an expectation out of the example they set.
Thus, leaders start emailing employees after hours–be it PTO, vacation, even a sick day–the employees feel they must live up to the same standard. Cue the anxiety, frustration, and the inescapable feeling that you’re working all hours of the day.
Emailing employees after hours is a company culture problem
Becker and Thomas both attribute these behaviors as a consequence of “always-on” company cultures. These cultures sell employees empowering ideas of greater autonomy over “when” and “how” they work via perks like flexible schedules and work arrangements as a big part of their overall experience. In theory, more autonomy sounds great, but Becker observes it seldom pans out that way in practice.
“Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being,” Becker says.
The broader implications of these findings call into question the purported benefit of “work-life integration.” While initially believed to be something workers wanted, especially those skewing younger like Millennials and Generation Z, it would appear the bloom is now off the rose for many who get to experience it. Even in the digital age we still need a boundary–even a thin one–where our work lives end and our personal lives begin.
In her HBR article, Thomas outlines a solution to re-establish those boundaries for companies trapped in the vicious cycle of emailing employees after hours. First, she says, it’s necessary for leaders to clarify exactly what their expectations are for off-hours communication.
“What managers expect can differ greatly from what employees believe their managers expect,” Thomas writes. “In the absence of clear expectations, employees will make assumptions about what you expect.”
This rulemaking goes for communication that happens within standard business hours, too. Thomas emphasizes it’s important to be explicit, granular, and coherent so that everyone on the team understands what is expected of them. She also recommends going beyond email and laying out the rules of engagement for every productivity and communications tool employees use.
Bad work email protocol is an issue of company culture. If you’re trying to change this aspect of your culture, leaders must play an active part of the process. Following Thomas’ model, leaders must–as we’ve argued in the past–be on the frontlines modeling their desired change with authenticity and consistency in their behaviors. In other words, they have to be the first to stop emailing employees after hours.
As Bonfyre’s own Rob Seay writes:
“When employees believe that their leaders are authentic, the desired changes will take begin to take root in their daily behaviors.”
This month’s Bonfyre Breakdown took a look at two articles: Employer Expectations on Off-Hours Email, from Virginia Tech Daily; and Protecting Company Culture Means Having Rules for Email, from Harvard Business Review.
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