No more evening emails – a dream or reality?

French working life has been in the headlines again recently with the government passing legislation about the sending and use of work emails outside of “normal” working hours.  Much of the focus was on the belief that the French government was “banning” emails in the evening or at weekends, which isn’t actually true.

What the legislation is actually making French employers do is to come up with a jointly agreed (with the trade unions) policy about the use of work emails outside of “normal” business hours (whatever they may be).  That’s hardly the same thing as “no emails after 17.00”, but it is up to individual organisations to decide if they want to go that far or not.

It’s not just the French that have made such a bold statement about trying to clarify the boundaries between work and non-work time. A number of large multi-national organisations, many in the technology / IT sector, have decided to develop similar style policies in the hope that it will reduce employee burnout.  Which leads to two main questions – is it a good idea to have such a policy? – is it possible to implement it?

Is it a good idea?

I’m not a fan of having a policy for policy’s sake, however, it is always important to be very clear on what an organisation expects from its employees.  If employees don’t know and understand what is expected of them, how can they reasonably be expected to do or not do something?  Yes, there may be some obvious or implied things that employees shouldn’t do – for example, punching a colleague – but depending on what sort of culture your organisation has, certain behaviours might happen because no-one actively challenges or stops them.  This is where the clarity of written guidance is helpful – it is harder to say you didn’t know that you shouldn’t XXX if there is clear, written guidance saying that you shouldn’t.

There is a potential argument “for” and “against” having such a policy – such as……

FOR:  I worked for one organisation where it was common for the senior team to email each other at 3.00am with the expectation that people would reply.  These people weren’t in different time zones but were forced to be “always on” because their “boss” was and he expected it of them.  To my mind, this isn’t a healthy or sustainable way of doing business and it was certainly backed up by seeing the toll on some of the individuals. Allowing people some down time is vital if you expect them to stay healthy and effective – a policy or guidance could help to create some space for them to do this.

AGAINST:  Some people will say that they find they are most productive on an evening, perhaps when the kids are in bed, and use this time to good effect.  In fact they use this time to perhaps “make up” their working hours, as they have to fit in school runs, caring responsibilities etc. To stop them sending emails and working this way could well be counter-productive. Should you force “normal” 9.00 to 5.00 working on people who don’t want or can’t work that way?

One thing is for sure, I’m not suggesting that anyone “bans” sending evening or weekend emails – that is down to individual choice – but reducing or stopping the expectation that colleagues will respond is a different matter.  Expectations and clarity are key.

How could or should I implement an out of hours email policy?

As with many policies there is no one size fits all.  Yes, there should be some basic points in here (eg. what is and isn’t expected) but the actual detail of how your organisation wants its employees to work is down to you and them.

Some key questions to consider might include:

  • What does the organisation want this policy to achieve / deliver? (eg. better work / life balance) Are there other ways you could achieve this rather than writing a policy?
  • Why do you want to introduce this policy now?
  • What do your employees feel about this issue? Do they believe that action is needed?
  • What are the key things you will and won’t want employees to do? (be clear and concise)
  • Will this be a contractual or non-contractual policy? (this will affect how you implement it)

Drafting the policy and / or guidance will be key, as will be the communication and consultation with staff about it. You definitely need to engage staff early and make sure they are onside with this, or launching such a policy could end up being more trouble than it’s worth!

So will I be recommending that the organisations I work with adopt an out of hours email policy?  The short answer is “it depends”.  Some organisations are mature and flexible enough in how they work that such a policy would be extraneous and unwelcome.  For others though, the clarity would be helpful and important to support employee wellbeing so a policy could be very useful and well needed.