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.