A ban on after-hours email: would you respect it?

It’s not a rule to stay connected, it’s a habit … and a bad one at that. But a ban on after hours email - would you respect it?


 

An article on BBC News – Could work emails be banned after 6pm? had me quivering with excitement as an attempt to help technology addicts ‘switch off’.

In short, Tom de Castella reports that ‘France has brought in rules to protect employees from work email disturbing them outside of office hours.’  Essentially affecting about a million digital and consultancy sector employees at this stage, the rule, (signed by the employers’ federations and unions), protects workers outside of the normal 9am – 6pm work day and advocates employees switching off their phones and avoiding work email.

At first glance this might well be the revolution the world is looking for. Working with companies dominated by email noise, where it’s not considered unusual for a manager to call their employee on a Saturday night when an idea sparks on their way out of a movie, I’m somewhat chuffed at the prospect of a rule such as this one, wending its way across the globe.

But is this really the answer?

Being an advocate for setting personal and office boundaries is something we teach in all of our productivity workshops and I have no doubt that you too, regardless of your level of self-discipline and organisation, lust after a day sans interruption, technology or otherwise. That aside, the burning question remains: would a ban on after-hours email answer France’s overall need for their employees to ‘switch off’ from work? Likewise, would switching off minimise the guilt that so many of our clients experience when not responding to messages or mail within nanoseconds of receiving them. It’s unlikely.

Let’s consider for a moment the worker that chooses flexi hours as an optimal option (or the only alternative) to work, the employees from the French-based company I contracted to late last year who worked across world-wide time zones, or the many millions of us who commute to work. Why would I necessarily want to switch off until 9am when my work day begins at 5am? Not even taking into consideration the likes of those that need to stay connected to fulfill their core job specification, with so many variables to consider, how can we expect a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all approach?

The crux lies deeper than litigation

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of down-time and believe wholeheartedly that taking a break boosts productivity. Work life balance is important for each and every employee’s sanity and it keeps staff more engaged and attrition rates down.

The realist in me understands that our needs are all different. During a Productive Email workshop a delegate got very uppity with my suggestion to not check email while on vacation. Her argument, and she is not the first of my clients with this opinion, was that she wants to check email while on leave. She does it at the beginning and end of each day (and maybe a couple of times in-between) because it’s what helps her know she can relax and there’s no exploding inbox to return to.

While we advocate not checking email before tackling your highest value/highest reward task, we realise that some of our disciplined clients prefer to check email first thing in the day, clearing their conscience so they can better focus on the important tasks at hand.

So what should we be doing?

Set boundaries:

Gather your team and hash out departmental parameters for you to follow as a guideline. Agree on:

  • Core connect hours
  • Expected response times
  • Alternative options for emergencies (remember to define what an emergency is)

Respect your time:

You can’t expect others to value your time if you don’t value it yourself. Once you have clear boundaries in place, communicate them beyond your immediate department; include them in your signature block if appropriate and add them to your voicemail message.

Practice self-discipline:

Sure, you can make all the excuses in the world; some of them will even be legitimate, but if you are not disconnecting and still feel a pang of anger/hatred/loathing when you receive a beep or notification of any sort, it is ultimately your choice to:

A: Turn off all push notifications

B: Turn your mobile device to silent

C: Choose to respond at another time

Moving forwards…

Placing restrictions doesn’t magic the problem away. A smoker doesn’t necessarily stop smoking because there is a caution on the box or a restriction on lighting up in the restaurant. Getting to the root of the problem is more critical than limiting the connection. Besides which, the root of the ‘immediate gratification’ generation we currently live in is not in the technology itself, but more so in the mutual respect, boundaries and discipline we bestow on ourselves and others. The habit of staying connected 24/7 is what is killing conversations and hampering productivity. Turning your phone to silent, disallowing push notifications and climbing out of your inbox are things you should self-police. It’s not a rule to stay connected, it’s a habit … and a bad one at that.

Just because Fred works till midnight doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to send mail … he just shouldn’t expect an immediate response! No law is required, just a little self-preservation and a whole lot less addiction.

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