… or last thing at night? Then you are not alone. Our research, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, shows that flexible workers operating in multiple spaces and at non-traditional times often get involuntarily ‘sucked into’ checking their work email at almost all hours of the day. On the one hand, the flexibility to work (almost) whenever and wherever is part of the appeal of flexible working. On the other hand, it can easily morph into ‘working at all times’, and constantly checking one’s email can be a symptom of limited work-life balance. Hence, in this guest blog, we want to explore the checking of email at unusual hours a bit more critically and suggest ways to avoid the temptations of getting ‘sucked in’.
First and foremost, flexible working allows us to work around other commitments or lifestyle choices, making time for family or caring commitments, for volunteering, meeting friends or simply some ‘me time’. But this also means spreading work across a longer ‘working’ day or week, catching up on work on the weekend or working on the move. Mobile devices such as tablet computers or smart phones have an important role here: they allow us to stay connected with work whenever and wherever. With so much of our lives nowadays taking place on smart phones, it is easy to just click into our work email first thing in the morning, last thing at night, during weekends or whilst on leave and then spending time and energy on work when, actually, we should be resting and relaxing.
Let us be clear: checking one’s email at unusual hours is not necessarily a bad thing. For many flexible workers, it is simply part of lengthening their working day so that they can devote time to other commitments or lifestyle choices during traditional office hours. Moreover, some flexible workers participating in our research have explained that checking their emails first thing in the morning helps them to prepare effectively for the day ahead: they know exactly what is going on when entering the office and can brace themselves for difficult situations. Others have stated that their role involves working across different time zones and that therefore it is but courteous to check their emails first thing in the morning and/or late at night to address any urgent queries from international colleagues and collaborators while they are in the office.
What did strike us in our research, however, was the level of guilt many flexible workers seem to experience, always being under the impression that they are not ‘doing enough’, that they have to repay their organisation’s trust for letting them work flexibly by working extra hard. For some, this means keeping extremely detailed records of working time and curtailing or discarding even the shortest breaks that would be considered as part of a normal of working day in the office. For others, this means being constantly connected to their work email – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, on weekends and whilst on leave. We were surprised by the implied assumption – shared by at least some flexible workers – that they are not entitled to any rest or relaxation.
There are many unacknowledged and unexpressed factors at play here, such as the role played by organisations and/or work colleagues, and we cannot go into them in detail in this blog. But there is one example you can reflect on in relation to your own practice and experience. If your manager sends out emails at unusual hours, what goes through your head and what do you do? In our research, some of our respondents have told us that if they receive an email from their manager at unusual hours, they regard it as an urgent matter that requires an immediate response – even though it might just be part of their manager’s normal working routine. Such presumed expectations regarding email communication quickly lead to people checking their email constantly. And with the convenience of smart phones, a few extra swipes to access one’s work email do not even feel like work!
But, then again, if it isn’t work, then what is it? Even though most of us would not pop back to the office just before going to bed, some flexible workers are far more lenient towards inviting work into their private sphere when electronic devices act as mediators. Does the fact that checking an email normally takes far less time than going to the office (that is unless, we get involved in a long exchange of messages or in a ‘quick’ Skype conversation), make it innocuous for your work-life balance? And isn’t the notion that, at least sometimes, we are not conscious of performing work, a tad disquieting, perhaps?
So there are two things we encourage you to do in your own flexible working practice.
(1) Try to be more mindful and critical about checking your work email. Do you ever check your email first thing in the morning or last thing at night? If so, why? What would happen if you did not do so? What could you do differently to stay away from your work email at times dedicated for rest and relaxation? Several of our research participants have found effective ways to prevent getting ‘sucked into’ checking their work email outside of their normal working hours. Some only use their laptop to check their work emails, dedicating their smart phone to nonwork use only. Others have a smart phone for work and a smart phone for nonwork, switching the former off when their working time has ended (unless they are on call, of course!). Others again put their smart phone or other tempting device in an inconspicuous place for the night to make it easier for them to stay away. Does any of it remind you of your own flexible working habits? If not, why not give it a shot?
(2) Try talking openly about the expectations your manager and wider organisation have regarding the checking of email. Admittedly, not all organisations appreciate the necessity to spell out such expectations to prevent overwork and stress among their staff. But other organisations have started introducing disclaimers at the bottom of email messages, stating that the sender often works outside of traditional office hours and that no response is expected until the recipient’s normal working hours have resumed. Some managers also apologise for sending out messages at unusual hours, making it clear that this is but part of their normal working routine. Indeed, the need for demarcation between work and non-work pushed national legislature in some cases towards embracing similar measures on a state level (e.g. in France). We appreciate that you may be self-employed rather than working for an organisation on a flexible working contract. In that case, best develop the clear rules of engagement for yourself – and once they are in place, try to stick to them! Prompting clarity on the matter – whoever your boss is – is simply a good practice.
In conclusion, while there is nothing wrong per se to check your work emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night, a more critical and mindful approach could support better work-life-balance and give flexible workers the necessary rest and relaxation without experiencing guilt. Good luck to you!
Dr. Stefanie Reissner, Senior Lecturer in Management and Organisation Studies, Newcastle University
Dr Michal Izak, Reader in Business Management, University of Roehampton Business School