The misplaced responsibility of the outside-work-hours email

Warning: I’m a bit cranky today.

Late last month, I dashed off a quick email to someone I work with – and was a bit chastened to get an autoreply “I’m out of the office for Thanksgiving”.  It was just another Thursday afternoon for me, but I’d forgotten that it was Thanksgiving in the U.S. (Thanksgiving comes six weeks earlier here in Canada; by the end of November, there isn’t much left in the fields to harvest and be thankful for.)  It’s not hard to find people arguing passionately that one should never email people outside work hours.  The argument is that it shows disrespect for work-life balance, suggesting either that the sender doesn’t manage their own work-life balance, or that they expect the recipient not to manage theirs.

I think the argument is wrong.  Not because work-life balance isn’t important – it is!  But proscriptions on when you send emails are neither a necessary nor a possible way to encourage it.

There are two version of the prohibition: that I should never email anyone outside my own work hours, or that I should never email anyone outside their work hours.  Let’s take them in turn.

The first version is easy to dismiss.  Lately, I haven’t been in the office much on Tuesday afternoons, because I leave early to take my son to cross-country ski training.  That pokes a bit of a hole in my productivity, which I make up with a bit of evening or Sunday morning work – which may include sending or answering a necessary email.  The details of what I’m doing Tuesday don’t matter (in fact they’re not something my email recipient needs to, or should, know about) – but that “outside-work-hours” email is enhancing my work-life balance, not impeding it.

Ah, you say, but what about the recipient?  When I send that Sunday-morning email, I’m disrespectful of their work-life balance.  Well, we can argue about whether it matters that I do or don’t expect a reply right away (for the record, I definitely don’t).  We don’t have to have that argument, though, because “don’t-send-emails-outside-the-recipient’s-work-hours” founders immediately under its own impossibility.  Let’s imagine that I resolve not to send emails outside my recipients’ work hours.  I would thus refrain from sending emails to my Christian colleagues on Good Friday; to my Muslim colleagues on Eid al-Fitr, to my Sikh colleagues on Vaisakhi, and so on.  This is certainly possible, but involves my asking my colleagues questions about their observances that are absolutely none of my business.  I would also refrain from sending emails my colleagues in Perth, Australia outside 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Australian Western Time.  Rather unfortunately for work-life balance, this makes the window for approved sending 9 p.m. – 5 a.m. in my own time zone!*  My calculation will need to be different, though, if my Australian colleagues are traveling, or working flex hours to accommodate shared child-care, or… well, by now you’ve gotten the picture and I’m just piling on.  Anyone who thinks they can avoid sending emails outside their recipients’ work hours simply hasn’t thought it through.

So, if I shouldn’t be ordered not to send email outside my “normal” work hours, and can’t feasibly be ordered not to send email outside yours, what’s left for work-life balance?  Something very simple: the realization that encouraging work-life balance involves respecting my colleagues’ decisions about when, and how, to work.  I should, therefore, respect your decision about when to deal with an email – and I shouldn’t try to make that decision for you.  You are welcome – no, you are encouraged – to do the same with me.

© Stephen Heard December 10, 2019

Image: 9 a.m., ©  Trisorn Triboon CC BY 3.0

*^In theory, of course, one could use an email scheduling option so that I can send an email during my work hours and also have it delivered, later, during the recipient’s.  This gets complex with multiple-recipient emails, but more importantly it means building a comprehensive database of people’s preferred work hours – which in turn requires asking them a lot of intrusive questions.  I’d rather mind my own business.


6 thoughts on “The misplaced responsibility of the outside-work-hours email

  1. Marco Mello

    In my opinion, the root of all evil are expectations. If people talked to one another more often about what they see, how they feel, what they need, and what they want to do, many problems like this “work hours dilemma” could be avoided.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pavel Dodonov

    I totally agree. I send emails whenever I want and I respond to emails whenever I’m working. I think that if one is outside one’s working hours, one has the option not to check emails or to check emails and ignore them. If one decides to see one’s emails outside one’s working hours, then it’s the responsibility of the one who opening the email, not the one sending it.

    What really bothers me is people using other means of communication, like whatsapp, to speak of work outside working hours. I think it’s OK to use whatsapp for professional purposes, but it’s important to only do this during regular working hours (it’s simpler than in your examples because the people in these groups usually work in the same place and have more or less the same schedule). So I try to never send messages to my students during weekends and so on. But I do send emails, because the person may open them or not.


  3. Cat

    I think this is a really good take in general, though I think power dynamics are worth considering if you are emailing your lab group or subordinates as a “boss”/”advisor”. Back when I was a student, my PhD advisor (who I got along very well with and have a great deal of respect for) would often email me at strange times, with requests that felt immediate (e.g. regularly after 10pm even on weekends). They once emailed me at 9pm on New Year’s Eve requesting a skype meeting right then. At the time, I was a first-year-PhD student still trying to demonstrate my value — I didn’t realize I could say no, or that it was okay to set boundaries. I know PhD students who have advisors that will email them at 3am on a Saturday (they live in the same timezone…), and while I understand that people keep different hours, this seems to be a power play. I think when you are the subordinate in the email relationship, it can be hard early on to set boundaries around email if you have a boss who is emailing you at times that would *generally* fall outside the bounds of normal work hours for the lab group or local organization.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Luke

    I have the following pasted in my e-mail signature to hopefully make it clear that, although the recipient may not be working when they receive it I do not expect a reply until they are “working”

    “If I am sending emails out of ‘normal’ working hours, I may be overseas or working flexibly. Please be assured that I do not expect a response outside of your own working hours.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: It’s fine to read your talk (if that’s what works for you) | Dynamic Ecology

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