The Work Email Problem That Isn’t a Problem

gotmailDo you check your work email outside of work? Gallup says that you probably do. Maybe you’re excited to tell your colleague about a new Excel trick you learned. Perhaps you want to remove an item from your plate. (Listen up: Your plate will always be just as full no matter what you do.) Or maybe your boss or company has a policy—probably unstated—that you reply to messages while on the toilet, in the shower, and during your sleep.

It’s especially because of the last reason that France recently enacted a new law to “ensure respect for rest periods” and maintain “balance between work and family and personal life,” according to the French Ministry of Labor. The “right to disconnect” provision states that companies with more than 50 employees must create a system to prevent work emails from intruding on employees’ lives during nights, weekends, and vacations.

Fact vs Problem

Good intentions, for sure, but you know about the road to hell—it’s paved by governments and HR departments. It seems that French lawmakers are acting like misguided HR practitioners by trying to engineer the workplace through well-meaning but meaningless rules.

Too often, government and corporate leaders rush to pass new directives to solve what they see perceive—or misperceive—as problems. In this case, people are checking work emails at various times. That’s a fact, but is it a problem? Consider these Gallup findings:

  • Seventy percent of Americans say that using a computer, tablet, or smartphone to work remotely outside of business hours has been a positive development.
  • What’s more, 1/3 say that they check their work emails frequently.
  • What’s even more, 17 percent of those people are likelier to report better overall lives compared to those who never check email outside of work.
  • Still, many of them also say they have more stress.

So what does all this mean?

“Donating a Kidney”

For starters, “We act like checking work email at home is like we’re donating a kidney,” argues Tim Sackett. He adds that having “the ability to check and respond to emails outside of the office increase your work-life flexibility, but we talk about it like it’s an anchor.”

Tim’s right—for the most part. The real issue is not work email outside of work. (I’m not even sure what that means for people who interact with peers in different time zones.) It’s the expectations around the behavior that matter most. While it should be OK to check and send emails at any time, companies and managers should rarely anticipate that people on the other end always hit “reply.” The frequency by which someone checks email is not a sign of engagement.

The frequency by which someone checks email is not a sign of engagement. (Don’t make me repeat it again!)

The best way to change behaviors is not through policy but by helping leaders at all levels of an organization shift their mindset. This means that you do not punish people for not answering messages. Maybe more importantly, you likewise do not reward them when they do.

Simply set reasonable work standards and deadlines and treat colleagues as people before workers—because policies that erode autonomy are rarely good ideas. Besides, the best employees will break rules that they feel are dumb. And attempting to erect barriers where technology has blurred or erased them? That’s dumb.

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