Commentary: How do you react when your boss sends messages after office hours?
Many of us cannot “switch off” if we feel expected to be responsive after work and clearer boundaries for after-hours work communication can help, says business lecturer Jennifer Lajom.
PERTH: “Working hours 8.30am to 5pm.” A clause stipulating office hours like this one is something we will probably find in most of our employment contracts.
But what goes glaringly unstated for many of us is the expectations of “after-hours availability” - the perceived expectations to accommodate work issues beyond regular hours.
Smartphones and other advances in info-communication technologies have made communication more efficient for workers everywhere. But this has also blurred the boundaries between work and leisure and made it easy to cede to the pressure of “catching up” on work at any time.
Why do we still do that?
Most of us are aware that detaching from work and “mentally switching off” helps us recover used-up energy and prevents emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that more countries and organisations are trying to reel in after-hours work communications. In France, employees of large companies are granted the legal right to disconnect from work. Others like Ireland and Canada have implemented or are looking at similar moves.
In Singapore, an industry-led coalition, the Alliance for Action, introduced in September new initiatives for better work-life harmony, including resources to guide companies in setting clearer boundaries for after-hours work communications.
And yet sometimes, we just can’t help it.
WE SHOULD KNOW OUR OWN RELATIONSHIP WITH WORK
Research shows employees vary in their approach to setting boundaries, based on how they think about their relationship with work and specifically, how interrelated work and life are.
Some workers are “integrators”, more eager to blur the boundaries of work and life and more agile in switching between tasks at any time.
Others are “segmenters” who seek to demarcate domains that compete for their time, managing responsibilities by allocating time blocks to keep them separate.
This “great divergence” in working styles has only been exacerbated by the global work-from-home experiment during the COVID-19 pandemic. With flexible work arrangements a constant presence, people might choose differently how to manage work and life.
And when the integrators hold sway, you might find after-hours work communications creeping in insidiously.
POWER IMBALANCE WHEN YOUR BOSS IS THE SENDER
This is a scenario most of us are familiar with. Here’s a pre-COVID example: If your boss sends a work text or email after hours or during the weekend, don’t we all feel the same anxious expectation to reply quickly?
We naturally think the boss’ request is urgent and important and that not replying will surely downgrade our standing in their eyes. We could be seen as lazy, unreliable or even careless.
This is the phenomenon of “email urgency bias”. A recent study showed how senders and recipients have different expectations of how fast their emails should be addressed.
Recipients tend to overestimate expectations over how fast they respond. Many think a faster response indicates better performance and might end up seeing after-hours work communications as more stressful than senders intended them to be.
What should be an easy task ends up making an outsized impact on their psychological well-being. A seemingly innocuous request to double-check figures can create anxiety that we might have made an error and make us feel obliged to crunch the data again.
This can interfere with home responsibilities and disrupt precious time to rest and recover.
HOW EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYEES CAN MANAGE AFTER-HOURS WORK COMMUNICATION
Employees should not be left alone to exercise self-control on whether they should check work emails or reply to that weekend text. Senders, especially supervisors, need to meet them halfway.
When matters are not urgent, we sometimes shoot them off at odd hours for fear of forgetting to do so later or because we function better at night after the kids finally fall asleep.
Rather than overhaul the way both work or expect that integrators conform to the boundaries set by segmenters, setting expectations on how they respond to each other may hold the key to this wicked problem.
It can be as simple as senders mindfully being explicit about expected actions to their communications and timelines to reply. Or senders composing late-night emails and tapping on programmable functions to send them out during office hours.
Managers should also reflect on how existing habits of after-hours work communications can impact the organisation.
Are employees affected by unstated and possibly unfounded expectations? Could it demoralise staff and fuel attrition? To what extent do such communications actually contribute to performance and business goals?
Organisations can opt to formalise policies, including what an acceptable degree of after-hours work communication is and how these are reinforced. Leaders should ensure circumstances don’t make managers feel the need to initiate such communications and engage employees on how they can respond appropriately.
Take a leaf from the Royal Plaza on Scotts, where workers can switch off under company policy by using the emoji of a smiley wearing sunglasses to respond to those trying to contact them after hours.
If certain business units cannot completely remove such after-hours expectations, companies should take the lead in minimising interruptions to personal time. For example, “availability shifts” can allow employees to choose when to take on important work concerns after office hours if necessary.
But there will always be exceptions: Workers in market or time-sensitive roles may have to be constantly available to employers or clients. They should be duly informed of the jobs’ expected after-hours availability and consider negotiating for their own expectations of compensation or performance management.
Such initiatives provide opportunities for both organisations and employees to mutually manage boundaries without compromising performance and outcomes.
RESPECTING EMPLOYEES A WIN-WIN FOR COMPANIES
Let’s also not forget work-related stressors can have knock-on effects on family relationships.
Studies have shown how ambiguous role expectations, time demand and work overload can contribute to tensions at home. But the silver lining is that having supportive managers has also been shown to reduce work-family conflict.
By demonstrating to employees their well-being is supported and valued, organisations can empower them to adjust work boundaries and maintain fulfilling lives outside of work which can ultimately contribute to better morale, performance and organisational outcomes.
Smartphones are truly living up to their name and becoming multi-purpose, hybrid devices. It is easy, efficient and sensible to sync work communication tools across multiple gadgets, even our personal ones. But we shouldn’t let the integration of work and leisure on one device run our lives.
We often hear quips that there is no work-life balance, only work-life integration until there is only work. But it does not have to end up this way with clearer boundaries.
Jennifer Lajom is a lecturer at the School of Business and Law and the Centre for Work + Wellbeing Strategic Research Centre at Edith Cowan University.