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October 2021

Are You a Jerk for Sending that Email at 9 pm?

No, you're not. But a growing number of people in the world will say that you are a jerk for sending that 9 pm email.

The reality is . . . it's complicated. Let's dig in. IMG_3423

You being a total machine and working to get things done isn't the issue. The issue is the perception that you're projecting your workhorse mentality onto others who report to you who can't match your speed, urgency, or general kick-ass vibe.

In today's world of empathy, mental health awareness, and work/life balance considerations, a growing population feels like you're part of the problem with your drive, ambition and . . .

. . . after-hours emails.  

A recent Wall Street Journal column cited a study of perceived urgency of after hours emails.  Here's what they found (link to full column here):

"We examined this question in a series of studies with a total of more than 4,000 working adults. We had participants take the perspective of either a sender or a receiver of a non-urgent work email sent outside work hours. We asked “senders” to indicate how quickly they expected a response and asked “receivers” to indicate how quickly they thought senders expected a response from them. We consistently found that receivers overestimated the need for a fast response—something we call the “email urgency bias.”

In both studies, we found that, on average, receivers assumed they needed to respond 36% faster to off-hours work emails than senders expected. What’s more, the receivers reported feeling more stressed by off-hours work emails than senders expected them to feel, and the stress associated with this unnecessary pressure resulted in lower subjective well-being.

Without question, when a work email comes in after hours, a lot of your direct reports are going to treat it with more urgency. As they should, if you're the boss. The best practice is laying some ground rules for what you expect when you send the after-hours email.

But before we dig into that, let's further define the players in this email game of after-hours communication. Below is my roster of the players involved.

There are Three Types of Managers When It Comes to Sending an After-Hours Email:

1--Fire away, let's get s**t done. You might or might not expect an answer to your after-hours email. But you'll be damned if you're going to worry about how people feel when you send late or weekend emails. By the way, I support you getting things done. Shine on, you crazy diamond. There's a reason you're in the seat you're in. The bottom line is if no one is sending after-hours emails, you probably don't have much of a company.  Don't shoot the messenger. It's true. "A" players aren't held captive by broad, over-arching calls for empathy. 

2--I'm not sending this now, it will be seen as anti-work/life balance. This manager has seen the light related to work-life balance and is not sending the message out when they think of it, making a note to send it out during normal business hours. Is this rationalization? Is this the most efficient path? I could argue that many of these messages would be delayed by getting busy. In addition, managers who can say they never send out after-hours emails probably aren't—wait for it—working after hours! I could also argue that managers who don't work at least some after hours and weekends are on average trailing from a total production/results perspective. Again, don't kill the messenger. All things being equal, a manager putting in fifty hours is going to outperform one who works only normal business hours. Hard facts from the salt mine.

3--I'm sending now but via Outlook's send later tool, so people think I'm cranking it out in the morning. Ah! The evolved manager related to after-hours emails. This manager says the following: "I'm here kicking ass after hours, but I'm aware that culturally, people are starting to be criticized for work/life balance signals with off- hours emails. I'm using 'send later' so people think my work day starts at 6:22 am." This manager works when they want to work and, if they don't need the response immediately, is winning the game of public opinion by timing messages to be more palatable. They're still crushing the team to get s**t done; they're just showing that they are evolved, even if they wonder why others don't work the way they do.

But let's not forget the employee side of this after-hours email exchange. You can talk about work/life balance all you want, but the reality appears below.

There are Three Types of Employees When It Comes to Email Management:

1--I respond within the hour to anything you send. Nights and Weekends included. You love them. Maybe they do need protected a bit. But damn, it's nice to know they're there.

2--I don't respond during nights and weekends, but I'm in control and you aren't disappointed by my timeliness of response. Cool. You still love #1 better, but you see this group and trust this group. We're good. Look forward to your response to the 9pm email in the morning.

3--I have trouble being responsive to email. It doesn't matter when it is sent, you'll rarely feel like you're a priority. The dirty secret to all the work/life balance world yelling about your after-hours emails is that even if you send all your emails at normal times, this segment still sucks at responsiveness. They're also probably the first ones to bitch about your work ethic and drive, and yes, your 9:31 pm email about the Sparkman account.  

Run through it, and your choices are clear. Keep doing what you're doing or adapt.

The Wall Street Journal article recommends making these disclaimers in your after-hours emails—I kid you not:

--“Even though I’m sending this email outside regular work hours, which fits my own work-life schedule best, I don’t expect a response outside of your own work hours.”

--“Note that you might receive this message outside of my office hours but that I have no expectation to receive a message outside of your office hours.”

--“Please know that I respect boundaries around personal time. If you receive an email from me during your personal time, please protect your time and wait to respond until you are working. It’s important that we all prioritize joy over email whenever possible.”   (KD note - !!!!!)

I honestly am fatigued by these messaging suggestions. The problem with these messages is that you're still the boss, and you need service on the things you need service on. 

I'd recommend the following options: 1) do nothing different and keep on rocking emails when you want, 2) adapt and use the "send later" option and still rock how you want to rock, or 3) make sure everyone on your team knows that you'll text or call them if you need an immediate reply to an after-hours email, which prevents you from the absurd messaging recommended above in every after-hours email.

If you're concerned about this, I'd recommend the "send later" option. It still says you're working harder than most and need people to be in range of your sense of urgency. I'd text people as needed without making the proclamation.

The bigger the company, the more you'll need the strategy in this area in years to come. Big companies follow broader society trends more responsively than smaller companies.

Your employees' feelings matter. But then, so do yours.

KD out.

-9:54 pm