One thing that comes up again and again when we talk about retention is the importance of work-life balance. There are many different opportunities for creating an organizational culture where work-life balance is respected, but today we are going to focus on the impact of off-hours communication. This is relevant throughout the year, though it becomes more of an issue during the summer months when more people are away on vacation.

Think about your own responsiveness to work messages when you’re off the clock. Do your employees think of you as on call 24/7? Do you send work emails at 1 a.m.? Do you answer your cell phone while you’re at the lakehouse with your family? Before you hit “send” while you’re technically off the clock or on vacation, consider the kind of work culture you’re modeling for your employees. If you’re available all the time, does that mean they should be too?

Feeling like they need to be constantly available 24/7 is one of the primary contributors to employee burnout. Leadership needs to be sensitive to the fact that employees have lives outside of work. Employees are more likely to remain at organizations where their managers appreciate that they are people too, with families, homes, and interests outside work. When employees can bring their whole selves to work, they feel a deeper connection to the organization and their colleagues around them.

Here are five tips about off-hours communication that we have discovered through the years.

Off-Hours Emails Are Always Urgent

Managers and business leaders don’t always recognize how employees are going to perceive the relative importance of an off-hours email or text. The leader or manager may think they’re just sending a quick ping, even though they don’t expect the matter to be addressed immediately. They may even say explicitly, “We can talk about this later, but here are some thoughts on….”

However, when subordinate employees receive an email during off-hours, whether it’s the weekend, evening, or right as they are heading out the door, they may receive it through an “urgent” lens. Even when messages clearly indicate a non-urgent nature, employees may still treat it as urgent because their manager thought it was important enough to send late at night, for example.

Of course, there are some jobs where it actually is necessary to be on-call, like in a medical setting or in a facility that operates around the clock. Which brings us to our next point.

Establish Work-Life Balance with Clear Boundaries

If you think it’s unhealthy for your employees to be constantly checking their work email from home, you need to say so explicitly to help people create and respect boundaries. Healthy leadership can help craft these boundaries and create a policy around what is expected for off-hours communications. “After 5 p.m., no one hears from them” is a catchy slogan that gets the point across.

If there are exceptions where certain employees do need to be on-call during their off-hours, be very clear about when this is necessary (e.g. “every third Saturday”) and make sure that the off-hours responsibility is not resting on a single person. These boundaries should be clearly stipulated in a company policy that is embraced and modeled by leadership.

Encourage Employees to Shut Off Their Phones or Laptops When Not Working

Whether it arrives as a ping in your inbox or an alert on your phone, the sound of a new message triggers a psychological response that can make a person feel physically compelled to reach for their mobile phone or computer. We’ve been conditioned to respond to these stimuli, like Pavlov’s dogs that learned to salivate in response to the ring of a bell. In short, it is very hard to ignore a message when we know it’s there, just a click away. In our connected society, our devices are always helpfully letting us know that we have a new message, with a tantalizing preview on the screen…

To break the habit, it helps to remove some of these stimuli. Encourage employees to turn off their work phones while they’re at home with their families, and especially when they’re away on vacation. Turning off the device gives them back control over when they are going to check their inbox. They can always take a look at email before going to bed. But by turning off their devices, they won’t be triggered by a disruptive ping, and they’ll feel more refreshed after taking a real break from work.

Inbox Dread: Assign a Delegate to Handle Issues While You’re Out

We’ve all been there. You’re suntanned and carefree after a two-week vacation, but now it’s time to open your work laptop. Everyone dreads that first peek at their inbox after disconnecting, even if they were only out for a few days. Messages pile up quickly. (Hot tip: when you’re combing through a stuffed inbox, start with the newest messages and move backward to the oldest. Some issues that were raised early on may have been resolved in later conversations.)

How can you help yourself to come back to a manageable inbox? One strategy that can help is to appoint a go-to person in your absence (and have your employees do the same when they’re out). Send out a notification to the small group who might need to know you’ll be out of the office, so that they know who they can reach out to while you’re gone. Set your out-of-office auto-reply and direct inquiries to your stand-in. This can help to minimize the size of the inbox you’ll return to after your vacation.

Where Possible and Practical, Create Automated Blackout Hours

Even with the most positive organizational culture around work-life balance, some people are still going to be tempted to work and send emails during off-hours. If people have access to their work email from home, they may always feel that there is some expectation for them to be on-call at all hours.

Their commitment to their work is admirable, but it’s not healthy if they can’t put boundaries in place. Some companies are considering gating technologies to prevent emails from being sent or received during set hours. Creating blackout hours can help to prevent overexposure and employee burnout. In 2017, France actually made it illegal to send emails outside of work hours, citing the “right to disconnect.”

Last Thoughts

This is not France, and companies in the U.S. would balk at making it illegal to check email after hours. Still, the idea of a “right to disconnect” underscores how important work-life balance is. Every employer should take a look at their off-hours communication policy to ensure that expectations and boundaries for work-life balance are clearly stated.

Leadership also needs to consider the example they are setting. Write the email whenever you want, but can it wait until tomorrow morning to hit send? Probably.



About EmpowerPoints

Happier People, Healthier Lives, A Better Workplace

EmpowerPoints is an employee engagement platform that brings incentives, recognition, wellness, surveys and suggestion boxes and catalog into one platform. We use an AI algorithm to measure data across a wide spectrum of data points to help leaders understand their workforce and take action to build the best culture. EmpowerPoints brings it all together!