How an after hours email policy might work in practice
Professor Sir Cary Cooper says that we should stop sending emails after hours. But how easy is an after hours email policy to implement and enforce?
I’ve been speaking with experts who have experience developing an after hours email policy. I’ve been asking why they did it, and the challenges they faced.
Are we addicted to email?
Deborah Woolridge, experienced HR consultant, cites several reasons why an employer might consider restricting emails sent after hours.
For example, they may worry about running into legal trouble with overtime legislation. Or, they may genuinely be interested in the wellbeing of their workforce.
But she also says that implementing and enforcing an after hours email policy is very difficult.
“We are so addicted to email!” she tells me. “Professor Cooper’s suggestion to encourage no emails outside working hours is a good one, but having developed email policies for many employers, in practice, it is hard to enforce.”
Ask yourself a few qualifying questions before jumping in
Woolridge says that before you develop an email policy, you should ask yourself a few questions. For example:
- Does it fit the type of company and culture? Depending on your organisational structure, banning emails could cause more stress than it solves.
- Should any employees be exempt? Your policy should clearly state which group of employees it applies to.
Woolridge says that the second question is important, if for nothing else but the legal concerns it can help you avoid. Why? Because emails count as work. And unless the employee’s contract clearly states otherwise, then emails out of hours will count as overtime, which they need to be paid for.
“By law, time engaged in email after work hours needs to be compensated. No option.” says Woolridge. “But even if employees are exempt, it would be nice for them to not feel obliged to address work emails out of hours.”
Restricting emails outside working hours improves productivity
One person I spoke to about this, was Stephen Hart. Formerly the CFO at WorldPay, Hart is now the CEO of Cardswitcher. And at the start of last year, he implemented an after hours email policy, which prevented emails being sent out of hours by employees.
“We’ve noticed a marked improvement in productivity, attendance and wellbeing in our workplace” he tells me. “And I’m pretty convinced that the change has benefited our business in other, less obvious, ways.”
Hart tells me that by taking the pressure off employees outside of working hours, they are applying themselves more fully during working hours. He says they are also happier about their job, and report a better work-life balance.
But after hours email policies are difficult to enforce
While Hart’s after hours email policy seems to be improving productivity and wellbeing, he admits that finding a way to enforce it is so far proving quite difficult.
“We don’t strictly enforce it yet” he tells me, “but we’re looking into ways we can do that, to make it even more clear that we don’t think emails should be sent outside of work hours. At the moment, if you break the policy, you’re just likely to get a playful dressing-down. But I’m aware of the need to formalise this into a proper procedure.”
Hart laughs that obviously, he doesn’t think sending emails outside of work hours is a gross misconduct offence. But he says that it does need some weight behind it to be enforced properly.
Don’t forget about your customers
It’s important to remember that employees don’t just email each other. They email people outside of your organisation, too – such as your customers.
“Companies should make it clear to their customers what to expect” says Hart. “As part of our policy, we explain to customers that if they send us an email outside of working hours, they may not get an immediate response.”
Hart says that the majority of customers don’t have a problem with this, and that it can further take pressure off employees.
Mutual support sometimes beats enforced policy
While enforced policies can be important for making sure everybody is singing from the same song sheet, it’s not always a necessity. And while you may have heard about how Volkswagen enforces their email policy by actually stopping email servers from running after hours, Woolridge says that it’s sometimes a better idea to simply seek mutual internal support for a well-crafted ideology.
“Enforcing a policy can seem counterintuitive to wellbeing” Woolridge explains. “Instead, have a policy that management supports.”
Woolridge adds that a policy can be useful in helping to develop and establish boundaries and options. However, she says that it is also important that employees respect their peers’ individual requests, and that management supports this way of thinking.
Do you have an after hours email policy?
If you do, I’d love to hear more about what it entails, and how you enforce it. Let me know in the comments, or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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