does your team need to disconnect from work?

Does any of this sound familiar:
• You send a work email at midnight and get a reply five minutes later.
• You come into the office early to get some work done without interruptions and your in-box has already filled up with messages sent from coworkers  the night before.
• You get the distinct sense that people are checking work email as soon as they wake up in the morning and as the last thing they do before they go to sleep at night.
• When coworkers go on vacation, there’s not much difference in their workflow, because they keep everything moving from afar.

If so, you might be interested in a new law in France that reflects the growing sense that employees in the digital age can’t disconnect from work. The new regulation there requires employers to set formal policies to keep work from encroaching on employees’ off time, including laying out hours, generally in the evening and during the weekend, when employees should not send or answer emails.

While it’s unlikely we’d see such a law here in the U.S., at least any time soon, it’s worth thinking about whether there’s pressure on your team to be hyper-connected outside of work and whether you have a role to playing in addressing that:

  • When roles and workload allow it, explicitly tell people that you don’t expect them to remain connected outside of work hours.
  • If you notice someone staying connected to work through technology 24/7 when their role and their work doesn’t require it, name what you’re seeing and ask if they’re feeling pressure to do that, and what you can do to help them disconnect.
  • Know that people will take their cues from you, so pay attention to the habits you’re modeling. If you regularly email late at night and from vacations, people may infer that they’re expected to do the same, no matter how earnestly you tell them that they’re not.
  • If you do write emails at night, save them as drafts and wait until the next morning to send them, unless it’s truly an emergency.
  • Pay attention to your staff’s use of vacation time. If someone hasn’t had a real vacation in a year or more, ask how you can help them carve out time to truly get away.
  • If someone doesn’t truly need to be hyper-connected to work outside of normal work hours, you might even suggest they consider removing their work email account from their phone – or at least turning it off on the weekends.

Of course, complicating matters, it’s also worth recognizing that some people like the flexibility of being able to work odd hours. You don’t want to frustrate and demoralize people by denying them to work in the ways they prefer, all in the name of improving their quality of life, so be willing to work with people to figure out systems that work for them but still ensure that they get real time away from working and thinking about working.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Mythea

    I so frequently find that companies tell you they want you to disconnect, but also still want immediate answers to anything they send…It is hard.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      Ah, the good old mixed message, like jobs where they tell you not to come in sick but don’t offer any sick leave or send people angry emails about how no one should call in sick because we’re so busy now, etc. They get to look reasonable while getting the benefits of being unreasonable.

      1. pixelwhipped

        Absolutely. I went eight months without taking a vacation day because my role changed such that no one else could cover me. All my superiors and coworkers told me I was gonna burn out, I need to give myself a break, I’ve *gotta* take vacation…

        So I take two days off. I get back and at 9:00 sharp get an email from my supervisor: “I’m sorry but the current backlogs are frankly unacceptable.”

        1. addlady

          So, yeah, I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday, so if you could come in at eight am that would be GREAT.

  2. Gene

    And don’t forget that if the employee isn’t exempt, you have to pay them for the time they spent on the email.

  3. DoDah

    While I like the suggestions in the article–it’s based on the fact that organizations want staff to disconnect–and that’s not been my experience at all–at least at tech companies.

  4. Whataman

    Ugh, this topic is giving me flashbacks to a job where I had to be available and responding to emails around the clock. So glad to be out of there.

  5. Lily in NYC

    Sigh, this is my life in the dept. I transferred to last year. But unfortunately, they see it as a badge of honor instead of a concern.

  6. AnonyMouse

    What about the other way around, if your boss seems to expect round the clock responses even when they aren’t actually necessary?

  7. HeeHaw

    Still looking for that unicorn employer that actually cares whether I need to disconnect from work or not. God, I’m bitter.

    1. Regina 2

      Ding ding ding! I think fewer and fewer employers care about this stuff, especially as more employees are connected after work hours and during vacation and as technology makes it easier for employers to keep digital leashes on their employees.

  8. Anonymous Educator

    I actually don’t mind round-the-clock email connectedness. What I do mind is people from work texting me (and, yes, I’ve been in workplaces where they randomly decide to give your cell phone number to all your co-workers) instead of emailing me… for non-emergencies. I like to compartmentalize. My phone is my phone and my texts are my texts. Work email is its own thing…. unless you’re going to give me a company-owned cell phone.

    1. AdminMeow

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who wants separation. I work with people on call all the time essentially and I hate that they text me. I’ve found myself setting my phone aside when I get home and not looking at it at all which then upsets my family when they can’t get ahold of me. I don’t even want to see it! I’m thinking a second phone may be a good idea after all… but even then my boss’ text messages come through out of order especially because they’re a mile long voice to texts – I just keep reiterating “Send it in an email, I can’t make sense of this”.

      1. BeenThere

        In the past when I had a corporate blackberry I always maintained a personal iPhone. This worked well as in many cases I wasn’t officially on call and they only gave me one charger which lived on my desk at work ;)

        Now that a lot of places have dropped blackberries in favor of iPhones (at least where I’ve been working) you can use the do not disturb option. This option can be switched on/off at will and you can also have it scheduled to enable itself outside of work hours or whatever schedule works best for you. The best feature is you can allow people from your favorites list to bypass the do not disturb mode so a select group can always call you. I have all my family and close friends on this list. Works like a charm.

        I’m pretty sure the other smartphones must have a similar feature.

    2. Elizabeth West

      I only do that when I can’t get hold of Boss or Team Leader any other way. And for TL, it was only “Hey, I can’t get online and I need to tell you something,” and only to her work phone. Boss puts her work cell in her Out-of-Office, but I have her personal cell and she has mine in case of emergency. So far, nobody has misused any of it. My company is really good about taking PTO, people not coming in sick, etc.

    3. LawBee

      I have one coworker who always always ALWAYS calls me on my cell, and it drives me crazy.

  9. LL

    “If you do write emails at night, save them as drafts and wait until the next morning to send them, unless it’s truly an emergency.”

    If your office uses gmail, you can schedule those emails with Boomerang! Can’t describe how much I love this gmail plug-in in and out of the ofice.

    1. Jillociraptor

      Boomerang is such a game changer! I also use it to semi-automate certain processes — you can set it up so that if you don’t get a response in a certain amount of time, it sends a reminder. So many of my piddly processes are SO much easier when Boomerang does the job for me :)

    2. Parfait

      I schedule emails for later delivery all the time, especially when sending to my manager, who just cannot seem to let go of his email when on vacation. So I set them to be delivered at 8:00 AM on the day he returns.

  10. miss_chevious

    One of the most important things a manager can do to encourage this is model it. Take a vacation and do not respond to (non-emergency) email. Don’t send email after/before certain times of day. Don’t reward employees for working during their PTO (especially with public recognition, which conveys to other team members that they should be doing this, too). If you’re telling your team to take breaks and then taking no break yourself, you’re showing them that they shouldn’t be following your advice. Model work/life balance and your employees will start to follow your lead.

    1. Manders

      Although if you are a manager who’s trying to model this behavior, make sure your employees know they’re allowed to make decisions for themselves while you’re out of the office. If you feel like you can’t ever unplug because your employees need you to sign off on every project, or nobody can work on certain projects while you’re not there to watch them, that may be a sign that you’re a bottleneck.

      1. miss_chevious

        Yep, exactly. Your employees have to be able to handle the standard work while you’re gone or you’re creating more of a problem.

    2. Crazy Dog Lady

      Echoing the public recognition – my company does annual service awards recognizing employees who have excelled throughout the year. They’re now known as the “No Sleep Awards” because the winners typically work 20 hour days for weeks on end. It’s alarming that it’s now the accepted standard for doing well here, and that nobody is looking at the root of the issue – why IS someone working those hours? What can we do to improve our processes?

      1. miss_chevious

        There’s a business unit in my company that does things like this — “look at this guy who came in while his wife was in labor!” “congrats to this woman, who worked through the entire winter break!” — and their leader doesn’t seem to realize that he’s advertising that his unit is terrible to work for and that this might be why his turnover is so much higher than other similar units. On the other hand, his leadership isn’t reining him in, and they really should be.

  11. Jillociraptor

    It’s so important for managers to model work/life balance. Saying “I respond to emails late at night, but I don’t expect you to!” even if you really mean it, is a mixed message. And I’ve been in a workplace where it came off as “You’re not important enough to have to be this busy.” You really have to own it. And own being organized and disciplined enough to prioritize, get work done in a timely manner, and avoid creating fires.

    The ability to be online and working any time of the day definitely makes it hard to be disciplined during the work day — so what if you slack off from 2-4pm when you can still get things done from 8-10pm? But it just creates a vicious cycle of offline work, bad time management, and unnecessary urgency.

    1. Faith

      I have a toddler who goes to bed really early. If I were to leave work at 6 or 6:30 pm, I would barely get to see her during the week. So, I leave my office at 4:30 or 5 pm, spend a couple of hours with my kid at home, have family dinner, put the kid to bed, and then put in a couple more hours of work in if needed. I know quite a few people who do that. The fact that you are sending out emails late at night doesn’t automatically mean that you are not disciplined enough during the work day. Sometimes that is the only way for you to get your work done while still spending time with your family.

      1. Jillociraptor

        Sure, I totally get that; the vicious cycle I mentioned is only one outcome.

    2. Regina 2

      I agree with you, but it seems to me that going up the ladder means you give up luxuries like disconnected vacations and after-hours work. I’ve never worked anywhere where the senior people ever disconnected fully, and that’s at places that had good work/life balance for the underlings.

      1. Jillociraptor

        I think it’s much harder as you go up the ladder, but I worked with a very senior person who was extraordinarily good at this–he had dinner with his family every night, and was totally offline during vacations. He was extremely disciplined about what constitutes an emergency, and set up all of his logistical support so help him prioritize while he was in the office. He had a dedicated evening work block each night when his kids were in bed that he scheduled as part of his work day, and didn’t check in outside of that without planning to do so in advance. With vacations, he delegated decision-making and genuinely gave up authority during his time off so they were empowered to make decisions. Of course, the higher up you go, the more you need to be able to be flexible to deal with genuine emergencies, so in that sense, you’re never truly disconnected; but constantly checking your phone isn’t necessarily a requirement.

        This is genuinely hard, and I don’t want to downplay that. We really haven’t developed the professional culture to more easily align our work in the new context of constant connection. But I think we also tend to view a lot of that misalignment as inevitable and out of our control, when in reality, we do actually have a lot of control over it, or at least have more choice in the matter than what we take ownership for.

        1. Kyrielle

          Yep. We had a very senior person at $LastJob on vacation when we hit an emergency (real one) that could not be resolved in a timely fashion without his input. And he was on a multiple-weeks vacation in Europe. The issue went up the ladder and….

          …the VP had the fellow’s number while in Europe and had us give him a call. No one had been told so it wouldn’t be a temptation on important things that weren’t that bad – anything truly worth interrupting his vacation would, in fact, make it to our VP in fairly short order, and the VP could judge whether it called for calling him. Had he thought it did not, we would never have known he had that number.

          (Still sorry we interrupted his vacaiton, but in less than a half hour of conversation, he got us back on track to fix it, and he went back to his vacation while we went back to work.)

          Was he totally disconnected? Clearly no. Had an emergency not arisen, he would never have had one minute of work thought, though. Even with the emergency, no one tried ot use that to contact him for anything else and we didn’t take one minute more of his time than we had to. (Because of that culture of letting time off be time off!)

    3. miss_chevious

      It’s one of those things that needs to be modeled clearly, for sure. My boss, for example, takes care of his kids on certain days of the week, so he leaves early and comes back on later on those nights. One of the ways he makes sure this doesn’t become an expectation is to be transparent about why he does it and he NEVER requests or expects responses when he’s working those off hours. It still took time for his reports to develop that trust, though, that they could be offline even though he was working.

  12. Faith

    My former boss used to say that it was a trade-off between flexibility and availability. If we wanted to work from home or have flexible hours, we should be willing to pick up the phone on our day off to answer a quick question or to check our email periodically on vacation. While I agree with him in general that flexibility should go both ways, you really start to resent the feeling that you have to constantly be “available”. One of the people at the office was genuinely shocked when I told him I wasn’t taking my work laptop with me on a family trip to Europe. The only time I truly felt disconnected from work was when I was on short-term disability leave and they were legally prohibited from calling or emailing me.

    1. SL

      I agree that in general there is a tradeoff between flexibility and availability. What I can’t stand is being in a position where there is no flexibility (i.e. you must be in the office from 8-5 every day) and you have to be available all the d*** time.

  13. DMented Kitty

    Haah. Reminds me of me at ex-job (corporate HQ of a big box electronics retail store). I was the only onshore person in the team, my manager was offshore — the offshore team was supposed to support me especially during times I’d like to take some PTO. I rarely got any weekends out because they assumed I’m always “on-call” (when it’s supposed to be on rotation with offshore but since I’m the only one onshore guess who gets bugged first?), I had to carry my work laptop if I’m out wherever trying to enjoy my weekend, hoping nothing goes wrong. I had a work phone and it got so bad that I immediately jump if I received any text alerts (which usually means there’s a Pri 2 problem). I would be jumping in conference calls at 2am (although in consolation I can go to work at 10 the next day). Manager did not do anything about managing resources to support me, add to that he was very anal about PTO – some of my offshore coworkers have ranted at me about how hard it was to ask for PTO without a full interrogation from him. I never got any days off during holiday season (which in retail it’s hell season), while amazingly offshore was able to get some. I was busy making sure I send system health check status reports every hour – one time everyone offshore happened to be out on PTO so there were no off-hours coverage so I had to cover 24 hours of status reports – I missed a couple status reports because it was 3AM and I was already sleep-deprived during the week. Good thing the I knew the guy collecting the status reports and he assumed everything was good during the hours I fell asleep and just covered for me.

    When I quit that job I could not get rid of the support phone fast enough.

  14. BBBizAnalyst

    Companies can do a better job of “disconnecting” by encouraging a culture where people can enjoy their time outside of work. In my opinion, there are very few exceptions where we need to be on call all the time. Companies are at fault for creating a culture of urgency when there typically is none. I find that my colleagues who do answer emails at 11pm or 1am in the morning tend to be overly competitive and aggressive. It’s like they think they’re increasing their odds of promotion by being the first to jump on an email.

    I tend to wait until the morning. It’s important for me to set boundaries and expectations. If that works against me, then so be it but I am absolutely not sacrificing my personal time for the sake of appearing like a tireless worker at 2am.

  15. SusanIvanova

    My team was all over the world, so I would check my email late at night from home, but I’d only answer if it was something where the other person needed to get something done by the end of their workday, which would end before my workday started and block everyone for a full day.

  16. Milton Waddams

    “• When coworkers go on vacation, there’s not much difference in their workflow, because they keep everything moving from afar.”

    When this is actually true, it’s a great argument for allowing remote work.

    1. Stan

      This is what won my work-from-home argument. I got a call for a legit, could not be resolved without me emergency while I was on vacation and was able to remote in and solve it standing in the hotel lobby. It took me 2 minutes and saved an expensive service call. I can’t work from home all the time, but it’s allowed me to take weekends away and stay home for the cable guy without burning PTO.

  17. Chaordic One

    My last job was at a company that offices all around the world. The work at branch offices was done during normal business hours, but it came in to headquarters from different time zones, so it could be arriving at any time. They all expected a prompt reply. I don’t know what they expected, but I did the best I could. It was a PITA to deal with and I’m glad I don’t have to anymore.

    I never checked my email outside of the office or when on vacation. It was all piled up and waiting for me when I got back.

  18. Heather

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of employers expect their staff to always be “on” or else they’re slackers. This creates anxiety, so even though my boss might say at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, “Just catching up on emails, no need to reply,” I feel I’ll get dinged somehow if I don’t. Like one of my old bosses would call me on my cell or email my personal account after hours and expected an immediate reply. Long story short, I was told I wasn’t available enough during my annual review despite physically being in the office Monday – Friday 9 a.m to 5 p.m. Sigh….it sucks.

    1. Chaordic One

      At my former workplace they liked to portray certain staff members (who weren’t online all the time) as being “resistant to change” and as being “old fogeys.”

      Does anybody really have 9 to 5 office hours? Everyplace I ever worked was either 8 to 5, or 9 to 6 (with an hour off for lunch).

      1. Regina 2

        I used to work in the non-profit performing arts, and we had a 9-5 — a 35 hour work week. My department put in overtime, but technically, it was 9-5, and a lot of the staff did keep to those hours.

        Oh, I miss that place.

  19. LawBee

    I didn’t realize until I got to the bottom of this post that this behavior could be seen as problematic. In my world, it’s expected. I’ve worked during every vacation I’ve ever taken except one – and got in big trouble for not working that one.

  20. anon for this

    “Know that people will take their cues from you, so pay attention to the habits you’re modeling. If you regularly email late at night and from vacations, people may infer that they’re expected to do the same, no matter how earnestly you tell them that they’re not.”

    I feel like this is so so so important. And it’s really timely for me, as I know I’m a bit frustrated because as much as I know my manager is absolutely entitled to do what works for him and set different expectations for us, it’s really frustrating when he doesn’t seem to understand that a lot of the habits on our team are things my coworkers picked up from him. Of course we all check emails on our PTO days and before we get to work in the AM, because we see you do the same.

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