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Balancing act: After-hours email bans signal positive trend

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Some companies are trying to make it easier for their employees to have better work/life balance

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Since I started writing about work/life balance a little more than a year ago, I've been interested to see how often the topic comes up in various media reports.

It seems like stories about people seeking balance have appeared with increasing frequency, though that may be because I'm more likely to pay attention to them now than I was before.

Either way, the latest article to catch my eye is one that appeared last week in The Washington Post.

It was the headline that got me first (as a good headline always will): "Firms tell employees: Avoid after-hours email."

In the world of work/life balance, a headline like that is huge news.

One of the most challenging parts of my previous job was its "always-on" nature. The team I managed had people working in the office all but four or five hours a day, so I felt like I needed to be available to respond to any questions or problems they might have. That meant I was often receiving emails or text messages until late in the evening.

At the same time, my managers were prone to come up with ideas at midnight, and when they did, they shared them with us via email. While they didn't necessarily ask for an immediate response, I was usually up and checking messages anyway, so I often responded.

These kinds of things didn't do much to help me build better work/life balance. But I don't blame anyone but me for that. I chose my career path, and I chose to respond to those messages in the middle of the night.

That said, I love the idea of companies trying to make it easier for their employees to have better balance, and that's what the Post article was all about.

According to the article by Cecilia Kang, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm called the Advisory Board recently directed its employees to stay off email during evenings and on weekends.

"The consulting firm’s push for no after-hours email is part of a growing effort by some employers to rebuild the boundaries between work and home that have crumbled amid the do-more-with-less ethos of the economic downturn," the Post article said.

"In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on email, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide."

The article goes on to talk about the productivity gains companies have seen, at least in part because their employees do after-hours work.

"Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010," the Post article said. "But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

"More often, employees work evenings and weekends beyond their normal hours and do not record that time with their employers, labor advocacy groups say. ... In official government terms, all that extra work has contributed to what’s known as the productivity index, which rose 3.1 percent in 2010, 2.6 percent in 2011 and is set to increase again this year. Yet the number of hours recorded by employees is fairly flat during those years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

At the same time, some surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate that employees are getting frustrated with all of that extra work, and more companies appear to be paying attention to their complaints.

I applaud the formal efforts of the firms listed in the Post article, and I hope more businesses follow suit.

The company at which I work now doesn't have an official "no after-hours email" policy — at least, I haven't heard of one. However, the managers with whom I work have set a good example of rarely, if ever, sending messages that require a response on nights and weekends.

I sincerely appreciate that, and I'm pretty sure my family does, too.

What's it like at your office? Do your co-workers or managers send lots of emails after hours and expect immediate responses? If so, how has that affected your work/life balance? If not, is it due to a formal policy or to the example set by top executives?

Let me know, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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