Old wooden sign with text device free zone on tropical beach. Rest from social media gadget and internetDoes your workplace expect you to always be available via email whether night, weekend, holiday, or ‘normal business hours’? Have you been asked to limit your sending of email to within certain hours? If you get an ‘urgent’ email that’s sent outside of your normal hours, how do you handle it?

If you’re caught up on either side of this great email boundaries debate, this episode is for you.

In this episode of The Career Rx we’ll discuss:

  • The recent push to limit email ‘sending hours’
  • What email sending, checking, and replying communicates about boundaries
  • How to be sure your intentions are understood and your boundaries are firm, while working at times that work for you

Today we’re talking about the great email debate – should you or should you not send an email outside of “standard” working hours (whatever that means, anyway)?

In this episode, we’ll discuss what “off hours” look like to you, the importance of email boundaries, and whether delaying an email send time is actually helpful.

“I think people ought to be able to send [emails] whenever they want.”- Marjorie Stiegler

In this Episode:

[0:48] Boundaries in the workplace
[1:50] Only working “normal business hours”
[3:00] Defending your off work hours
[5:40] Getting things done on your own schedule
[7:20] Navigating the work/life balancing act
[9:00] What’s in your email signature?
[10:10] Handling your boundaries – stop apologizing
[11:40] Tweet me your answer to this question

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TRANSCRIPT: Episode 55 – The Great Email Debate About Boundaries

Hey there, welcome to The Career Rx. I’m your host, Marjorie Stiegler. This podcast is all about the important stuff they don’t teach you in medical school, about how to treat your career, like the business it really is, and how to be strategic about your success. I’ll show you how to use modern strategies to get ahead, create your own path and do more of what you love. Every episode is inspired by questions from listeners just like you. So be sure to subscribe. And of course, send me those questions, so I can use them on a future episode. so you don’t miss anything. Be sure to always check the show notes on my website. Are you ready? Let’s get into it.

Hey, there today on The Career Rx, I’m going to talk a little bit about the great email debate. You know, we talk a lot about boundaries in the workplace. And one of the things that’s come up recently, actually, that comes up again and again, and for, which I recently put a poll out on Twitter, is around email and how it plays into establishing and maintaining workplace boundaries, and also how it speaks to how your workplace culture expects you to either be available or not to be unplugged or not.

And the question seems to really revolve around whether people ought to restrict their sending of email to, you know, quote, “normal business hours”, depending upon whether you’re a leader or a manager, verses on the receiving end of content from a leader or a manager, there are some important things to think about. But it’s not always dependent upon whether you’re a leader or manager, it might be that you are just a member of the team. And if you happen to work at hours that are outside of you know, your, quote, “normal business hours”,do you have an obligation to restrict your sending to the normal business hours.

Now, many people know that most email clients do have a functionality, or at least an opportunity to get a third party plug in, so that you can delay send, that’s possible and not hard to do these days. That means it could be you know, Saturday at three o’clock in the morning, and you could send an email and schedule it to show up in your colleagues inbox at, you know, 10am on Monday or something like that, if you wanted to, the real question is, should you have to? And also, you know, what are the pros and cons of doing so, specifically as it comes to boundaries.

Now, clearly, if you’re in an organization that is trying to establish that culture that really protects and respects people’s off hours, and I’m sorry, using that in air quotes, because I realized that’s different for everybody what your off hours are, but let’s just assume for this conversation that at least some hours should be off hours, that you’re not actually on call, and that you have some, you know, reasonable expectation of finite scope of work. If you’re listening to this, and you think you don’t, I would challenge you on that, unless you are explicitly on call, I believe you do have absolutely a reasonable expectation to have some off hours.

So again, the question is, if you’re sending an email at some time, that’s outside of hours, is it okay to send it because then your colleagues will get it at outside hours? And will they feel an obligation to respond? Obviously, if you’re just a member of the team, and you’re not a leader, it’s a little bit different. If you choose to send an email in the middle of the night, or on a holiday or a weekend, and your colleague who clearly views you as a peer receives it, unless it’s specifically asking for something and it’s asking for it ASAP, you know, with urgency, they may not feel any pressure, any obligation to get back to you. And if they check it and see it on Monday or Tuesday, they may not feel like oh, no, I should have seen this earlier, which is of course, that’s really the problem, right?

The problem is not to do with when email gets sent. But it’s whether people are feeling this perpetual obligation to be plugged in and to be answering. So if you delay send, then clearly you can work whenever you want. And it shows up in your colleagues inbox at another time.

But I also want to challenge back on that a little bit. Because if What if you’re a person who works at night, if you work a night shift? What if you’re a person who works the weekend or the holiday? What if those off hours that might be off hours for your colleagues or your boss, or actually part of your regular schedule? Shouldn’t it be okay for you to send emails in the times that you’re actually working? This is also true if you have international colleagues, it’s always work time somewhere, shouldn’t you be able to send an email that’s work time for you realizing it’s going to land in their inbox at a time where they’re likely asleep, or doing something else and that they’ll get back to in their normal business hours?

When I think about this, I am a leader and I do have teams who report to me and I would not want them to feel any obligation to do so outside of business hours, but in the same way that I have asked them to really work at times that work for them. I also work at times that work for me, what does that mean?

That means that during the, you know, quote, unquote, “normal business hours”, I have a few hours blocked off in the morning and a few hours blocked off in the afternoon, or I’m doing things with my kids, getting them ready for school, taking them to school, making sure that they are already in set with their activities, and generally being a parent. But because of sort of COVID life, I’m doing that at times, that would generally be considered office time, right? Time that I would be expected to be at work that my team is fully aware of this. And they know, they can see on my calendar that I’ve blocked off parts of time for which I’m not available. But that also means that I do intend to make up the work, right? I mean, I don’t clock in on a minute to minute basis. But you know, there are expectations for deliverables and effort for the company that I put in. And so sometimes I’m doing that at 5am. When I’m an early riser, I do better in the morning than I do late in the evening. But I might also send some things at 8pm. And it doesn’t mean I’m working between 5am and 8pm. Certainly not. And it doesn’t mean I expect my team to be at work at 5am or at 8pm.

But I also don’t want to have to go through the jumping of the hoop myself to delay that to send at a specific time. So instead, I’ve chosen to just tell them very explicitly, I work these hours I have some of these times off, I may send you things that other times when might even send them on the weekend. But I really do not expect you to see it. And I don’t want a response from you until your business hours. And that’s because I’ve also empowered them for whatever COVID or just their preferences mean for them, that they work, a schedule that works for them. So their business hours might be that traditional, you know, eight to four, nine to five, whatever it is, or they might be doing a similar thing as I am and blocking off time at other chunks of the day and then they’ll get back to me at 7pm, midnight, it’s really none of my business when they feel like working so long as we’re working well together and we’re all getting things sort of done in time. And we’re able to communicate with each other in the way that we need to have.

My intention is and I think I’ve succeeded in doing that for my team to set up a system whereby we can all work at the best times that support us in our lives and our work life balance and our work life integration. And if that means I send an email at 5am. And they answer me back in the middle of the workday, and I answer them back at 9pm. That should be fine for everybody as long as they realize. And it’s and it’s true and genuine that there is no expectation for them to be plugged in all the time. And also that they realize that I am not plugged in all the time working continuously those hours. But I have definitely heard other people say no, if I do that, then even I’ve said I don’t expect them to write me back, they may still feel that implicit pressure from their boss, and they will feel like they need to write me back. And that that will somehow be the message that they’re getting. And again, I don’t know, because some people work at night, some people work weekends, some people work holidays, and some people are international. So I really don’t know if that’s true, right? If the fact that people send things at all different times applies that pressure, unless there is some language that sort of says, I need this back ASAP. You know, can you do this quickly. If you send someone an email like that on a Saturday, and they get it on a Monday, they might reasonably feel some anxiety about it.

And I’ve heard people handling this in different ways. We’ve already talked about the delays. And I’ve also heard people putting things explicitly in their email signature or in the body of the email that sort of says, “You know, I don’t expect you to see this right now, but you know, this is when it’s on my mind, blah, blah, blah,” and then writing their email that way. And I’m curious to hear from you as well. Does that mitigate the risk of this pressure? Is it necessary to have something explicit like that in your email signature? How does that all really work out?

And then importantly, if you’re the receiver, what should you do? Should you simply not respond until such time as you consider to be your business hours? I mean, ideally, you wouldn’t even be seeing it right. But I know that sometimes people have their works coming to their phone, and our devices are all interchanged. So you might see it, even if you’re technically not intending to be at work. And I guess that’s where the pressure comes in. So if you are a person who feels like you’re, you’re on the receiving end, and you’re trying to enforce your boundaries, do simply just not respond. And therefore, does that reinforce the boundary? Does that sort of train people to understand you’re not seeing anything on the weekends or at night? Because you’re not responding at those times? And therefore, you’re grown up, you’ve established your boundary and you’re protecting it?

Or do you have to do something more proactive? Like call it out? and answer back, you know, hi, yes, I got your email from Saturday. I did not see it until my work hours began this morning, you know, on Monday. At eight or whatever, and then proceed to answer is it necessary to call it out? To do so definitely reinforced that boundary in a really explicit way. But it also may be making a bigger deal out of it than necessary. I suppose this is personalized, right? This is every individual circumstance is probably different; your workplace cultures are different. Your relationships with your bosses and the people sending these emails may be different.

I’ll give you my own view, which is probably not surprising, I think people ought to be able to send things whenever they want. But I don’t think it ought to include any kind of urgent language in it. If it does include that language, then it probably should also have a disclaimer meaning, while this is urgent, I don’t expect you to see it until normal business hours. I also think on the receivers end, there’s no need to apologize for a late reply. And there’s also no need to necessarily call out your normal business hours. I think you can just reply. And I think in doing so you maintain your boundaries. be unplugged, when you intend to be unplugged, answer back when you’re back in the office. And if anybody presses you on, that’s when you can answer back very explicitly. I don’t check my email on the weekends, or I don’t check my email after such pm at night, whatever, whatever time that might be.

And again, only you know what’s appropriate there. But I feel like if you’re not being overtly pushed on it, maybe it doesn’t need an over response.

I know it’s very controversial. A lot of people feel strongly that the burden is really on the sender. So I’d love to hear from you tweet me or you can find me on Twitter. It’s at Dr. m. Stiegler and I’d love for you to reference this episode and let me know how do you manage email boundaries? And what do you think whose obligation is it? Is it on the sender to delay that send and only send things during traditional business hours? Or is it really on the receiver to unplug and simply not check? I’d love to hear from you. That is my synopsis of the great email boundary debate.

Bye for now.

Thanks for joining me on this episode of The Career Rx. Be sure to leave me a review on Apple podcasts or whatever podcast player you’re using to listen today. And definitely send me those questions so I can answer them and give you a shout out on a future episode. Bye for now.

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