my office contacts me all weekend long

A reader writes:

I’m in the middle of the hierarchy at a very small company. Two people report to me, and I report to two people, but they trust me and I have a lot of autonomy and decision-making power. My two reports and I work a pretty standard schedule, with a few weekends and trips thrown in, but my two bosses have a more flexible schedule.

And therein lies the problem. Because they’re so flexible, we end up working all the time. They don’t see that much of a difference between Saturday and Monday, but I do! So I’m writing this on Saturday at 2:30 pm, my first day off since 4th of July weekend, and I’ve gotten about half the level of emails and requests that I would get on a weekday already. I answer the ones I can, ignore the more involved ones, and try to protect my two reports from having to do anything, but I’m getting really stressed and I feel like I’m never “off.” This happens on weekday nights, too, usually all night.

Is there anything I can do to encourage less of this? Subtle behavior modification? I don’t want to be paid for my time (we’re all exempt, anyway) — I just want to feel like I have some time to myself!

I know you might say to just turn my phone off, but I’ve been participating in this for so long and it’s so ingrained that I don’t think anyone would take the hint. And I would be antsy anyway!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Greg NY*

    My biggest concern here actually is that the managers have a more flexible schedule. There are times that lower levels have to answer to clients or customers and coverage is necessary, but why shouldn’t this LW be afforded whatever flexibility the upper level managers have? Is it that common for a middle manager to work a completely structured schedule while an upper level manager doesn’t?

    As for the main subject of the letter, part of being a professional is knowing what’s urgent and what can wait. The same exact thing can be urgent during typical business hours and can wait during other times. On weekends, I wouldn’t check my work email at all, much less respond to anything, unless it was one of a few busy times of year in which it helps to stay ahead of everything, and even then my colleagues know that I’m responding at my convenience and that they don’t expect an immediate response and I don’t expect such a response from them. Just because upper level managers might work, or might be not working, at any particular hour of the day doesn’t mean that those without such a flexible schedule should do the same.

    1. Turquoisecow*

      The flexibility of upper management vs the OP doesn’t surprise me. It’s a small company, so the higher managers might be working on other things during the week, like meetings or even other kinds of work. My husband works for a start up and his CEO also has a few other companies he is part owner in and spends a lot of time at fundraising meetings and other kinds of partnership/networking type things on the company’s behalf. Also, if they’re emailing on the weekends, I’d presume that it’s because they don’t have time for it during the week.

      Meanwhile, because OP’s reports work traditional hours (maybe they’re required to for business reasons, it’s not clear), OP needs to be there to support them. A managers job is not just to be the boss, but to make it possible for reports to do their jobs. She probably has to answer more in the moment questions from them.

      Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s not, and maybe they could do it another way – I can’t say without knowing a lot more about the company – but it doesn’t surprise me a lot that the higher ups are more flexible.

    2. Antilles*

      For your first paragraph, in my experience, it’s very, very common that people higher in the organization get more flexibility for a variety of reasons – partly due to the nature of the role itself, partly due to various senior management obligations occurring outside of normal business hours, partly due to earning the trust that you’ve been around enough that we know you’ll still get your stuff done even if you leave early on Friday, and partly as a perk/reward*. It might vary by industry, but I’ve seen it pretty commonly.
      *YMMV on whether this sort of flexibility actually serves a perk since for all the obvious benefits, there are also usually hidden costs that sort of balance it out – you get to leave early when you want, but you usually end up repaying that by staying late/working oddball hours a lot…whereas the no-flexibility junior staff has to generally be there from 9 to 5, but after 5, they can more or less shut it off.

      1. Mediamaven*

        Agreed. A flexible schedule is something you earn, its not necessarily an entitlement. It’s not about being fair.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        My supervisor has a more flexible schedule than I do, but he also has irregular demands on his time that I don’t. If there is an evening event, he has to be there, but I don’t. If the workload permits, he can come in late or at odd hours to make up for it, where I would have to get approval. Fair =/= identical.

        1. Alton*

          Right. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of it being a perk, exactly, so much as it’s a trade-off of having different responsibilities. And there can be pluses and minuses.

    3. Bea*

      Every one I’ve known and worked for at the upper levels have more flexibility because they’re dealing with their share of day to day but mostly long term projects. They are traveling a lot for various shows and conferences. Whereas those of us below them are ingrained in the day to day things and hands on management.

      That aside, my execs have been aware of my hours and whereas things happen late or on a Sunday, I’m not bombarded. Unless they’re terrible and often tyrannical “I’m working so you must work too” nonsense.

      Granted my reports are never salaried and therefore there isn’t any sheltering necessary. I’m just the one fielding all the odd hours nonsense.

  2. InfoGeek*

    Emails are convenient ways for me to request information from people when I can’t talk to them immediately. I always assume email is asynchronous.

    I have no qualms about sending email in the middle of the night or on the weekend, but I don’t expect a response until normal working hours for that person.

    If I truly needed an urgent response, there would be a skype, text, or phone call involved.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      My job has a hilarious set of mixed messages, which I actually appreciate. They are: “Don’t send emails outside of work hours. Here’s how to set a delayed send on your email.” So if someone does want to work at odd hours (and that is generally higher-ups here), it’s not setting it as an expectation.

      1. Academic Addie*

        I started this on my maternity leave, when I might browse some email while nursing at 2 am. I just set the timer for the email to go out at 7 or whatever. I think it sets a better expectation, especially since I supervise a lot of folks without much work history.

          1. Dr. Doll*

            Sounds like boredom nursing at 2 am. ;-)

            But you’re right, in my outfit, by policy I would have to Seriously Speak To someone who was doing any work at all on any kind of medical or parental leave.

    2. Essess*

      Exactly this. When I send emails out at odd hours, I expect the person will look at it IN THEIR NORMAL WORK HOURS when they are ready to work. I am sending the info out while I am working my hours, and I would expect them to be answered in the time that is the recipient’s work hours. I do not expect an instant response unless it was explicitly stated that everyone needed to be available at that time.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I try to just explicitly state it either way – please don’t bother with this until Monday AM/OMG I need this now (in which case, I probably called instead of emailing).

        About half my staff also doesn’t have email access to avoid FLSA issues with non-exempt staff, so they don’t even see it until they come in the next day anyway. That solves a lot of problems.

  3. Bunny Girl*

    You know everyone thinks I’m insane because I still have a basic (flip) phone but I swear it’s kept me sane. I can’t get work emails to my phone, I can’t check in on stuff, and I don’t have anyone getting ahold of me on social media unless I’m logged onto my computer. It’s so nice to feel unplugged but still reachable in an absolute emergency. I have to agree with Alison. Try going a weekend or two without responding to any work emails. Make it so you can’t get those emails on your phone. Get to them first thing Monday. I feel like if there is truly an emergency going on, your managers can call you. To be honest, unless you were in emergency services, I don’t think customers really truly expect weekend responses. I’m sure some do, but I’m sure the majority know that if they’re contacting someone outside of “office hours” they probably will have to wait. If you truly feel bad about this, set up an auto-reply that tells people to have a good weekend and that you’ll respond to them asap on Monday morning.

    1. CMart*

      I’ve encouraged my husband to uninstall his e-mail client from his phone. He is a small business owner and he does work directly with customers at non-traditional hours (weekday afternoons and evenings mostly), but it’s been a struggle convincing him that when a customer sends an e-mail at 11pm they’re not actually expecting a response that night.

      And if they were? That’s not an expectation he should be indulging. He’s helping teens raise their standardized test scores, not facilitating organ transplants.

      1. Bea*

        If he’s helping teens…the odd hours make sense. 11pm was like 6pm to me “in my youth” lol

        As someone who advises small business owners, working around the clock is the norm. Especially if they’re dedicated to the success of the business. If he doesn’t answer at 11, someone else in a similar role will and it does lose clients. But it’s about weighing you’re need for each account. I’m assuming a lot of his advertising is done via word of mouth.

        1. CMart*

          It’s a tutoring business, and these are the parents e-mailing at 11pm on a Friday night asking for progress reports etc… None of it is crucial. They can wait until the next morning for a response (especially if it’s for results of a practice test or w/e that was taken 5 hours earlier alongside 35 other students, they’re not even graded yet!).

      2. Bunny Girl*

        I’m fairly young, but I have been in the working world for a while, and I feel like the expectation has always been a response from 24-48 hours unless it’s over the weekend. I’d never email someone and expect an instant response, even if it was urgent. It’s not like 9-1-1 urgent.

        1. EKB*

          That’s definitely field dependent… while some of my emails can wait and be in the 24-48 window, most need to be answered in the same business day, or the next morning if sent after COB.

    2. mark132*

      I’ve made a point of not connecting work email to my phone (and the key word is ‘my’ as in I paid for it.) I’ve never regretted it. If I have to check my mail from my phone, I’ll just use the web mail client. I almost never check my email outside of work hours. And guess what the world hasn’t ended, and I’ve been able to relax less interrupted.

    3. AJ*

      I have a “dumb phone” and a “smart phone”. Bosses only have the number of the former; friends have the number of the latter.

    4. Been There, Done That*

      I lovingly remember my little flip phone. I envy you. Legitimate work messages are one thing, but who needs a coworker who reminds you all weekend long about the party on Monday so you don’t need to bring a lunch?

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        They do still exist! And no 10-year-old’s will ever want to borrow it… (okay, that’s my situation and not yours. A good friend has 10-year-old twins and they LOVE it when I join them for breakfast, because then they EACH get to play on a phone at the same time, no turn-taking. But not until after ordering, and not once food arrives, and then not again until hands are washed. While we’re all eating we force them to TALK TO US. The pain can be epic.)

  4. Anon From Here*

    I mentioned yesterday about how hanging with my supervisor and boss outside of work hours is literally above my pay grade. Similarly, I won’t answer work calls or work e-mails unless/until I’m being paid at a particular level. Doesn’t matter whether I’m exempt, or whether I’m consulting. Exempt, or having a consulting contract in place, doesn’t mean that work or the client owns my time 24/7. At least, I’ve never had a gig where the stakes (or my pay!) were that high.

    1. Mediamaven*

      I think there can be harm in looking at every professional tasks as whether or not it’s in your pay grade. Sometimes doing more than what’s expected gets you to the next pay grade faster. I know I reward employees who consistently demonstrate that they operate at a level above with raises and promotions faster. Responding to emails at off hours on occasion is often time a part of certain industry norms and doesn’t mean someone is trying to own your time 24/7. If that philosophy works for you then so be it, but most successful professionals don’t operate like that.

      1. Anon From Here*

        As a successful professional, I’ll push back a little. In my industry and at my number of years in the profession, I can pick and choose which client or gig I’ll be more or less responsive to on a Saturday night or Sunday morning. But at this point, it’ll have to be very, very urgent for me to respond outside of work hours, and I’ll expect to be paid commensurately.

      2. Been There, Done That*

        You sound like a good boss, but there are those bosses and small-business owners who DON’T reward going above and beyond–they take it for granted.

  5. Cobol*

    From the answer; “Many, many times people become resentful of expectations that they assume others have of them, when in fact the expectations are all internal.”

    This plus something along the lines of is this something you’re inferring, as opposed to something they’re saying would solve about 80% of the questions that come in.

    Some people be crazy, would probably be the answer to the remaining 20%.

  6. JaneB*

    I like answering email at odd times (I’m single, have variable health, and a salaried job with flexibility outside of core hours and having an overload is the norm for the profession – insomniac misanthropic workaholics are the winners in the field). But I’ve added a statement to my email signature that I am working to a pattern which suits my needs, and I don’t expect replies until the recipient is next in work mode. I’ve had no push back and some compliments and thanks for it – getting expectations clear always helps!

    Good luck to the OP in sorting out their own & others demands…

  7. Essess*

    You can set an autoreply that you turn on when you leave on weekends that states that you will be off work and returning on Monday and that non-urgent matters will be addressed when you return to the office. And, this is the big part, DON’T ANSWER NONURGENT EMAILS ON THE WEEKEND. You need to train yourself, not your boss.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think this is probably something you’d want to either okay with your boss or know your industry really well about first. I work in an area of legal that is 24/7 client services, and putting something up like this would trigger calls to my boss or, if a client saw it, an unpleasant meeting with a partner.

      Now, my industry is insane and out of the norm. There are likely places where this would be totally acceptable, but I’d ask before proceeding.

      1. JaneB*

        It’s ok here – academia. But you’re right, all these things are “know your industry” and “know your boss” specific!

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Nope, that’s not the way legal works. It’s not about having someone to answer the client’s call, it’s about having someone with institutional knowledge of the client’s case available. If you’re being sued or, worse, subject to criminal investigation/prosecution, you want to talk to the person you know, not an on-call. There are usually multiple people on the team, but they typically focus on individual aspects of the matter rather than generalizing. It’s a relationship business, and a lot of clients won’t pay for the time for multiple people to get up to speed on a matter. If it’s a random person, we eat the time for background AND the client is usually pissed at paying hundreds of dollars an hour. It’s also compensated at a higher level for hazard pay.

          1. Les*

            One would need to know what area of law we are talking about here. What would be so important that would warrant someone being contactable out of hours and on weekends?

      2. Turquoisecow*

        I am not in an urgent industry, but a higher up near me had as his email signature something along the lines of how he is in the office but checking his email only so unless it’s very urgent he won’t reply right away. Which was understandable, in a way, but completely unacceptable to be spelled out that way.

        They got him a Blackberry (it was a while ago) shortly thereafter and then he didn’t have that excuse anymore.

      3. Les*

        Speaking generally, what area of law are we talking about, and what would be so important that an instant answer at 11:30pm on a Friday night would be needed?

    2. miss_chevious*

      Yeah, this would be frowned upon in my workplace, even though we do NOT have the expectation of checking email on the weekend or late into the evening. It creates the impression of rigidity and unavailability. The impression is sort of true — again, we don’t look at email on weekends — but it’s the difference between not responding and telling people you’re not going to respond that’s the optics issue.

    3. MLB*

      An OOO is really unnecessary for a weekend, because if you’re working at a typical M-F, 9-5ish office it’s assumed you’re not working over the weekend. I think she needs to meet with her bosses and ask for their expectations. If she’s at the management level, then normally that requires work off hours when needed. But I think most of this is her training herself to not respond all the time.

  8. Not a Real Giraffe*

    I like Alison’s third suggestion, to give your bosses a heads up that you’ll be less available on weekends. Something about the “ignore emails and see what happens” approach feels a little risky to me. I think letting them know that you realized you’d stop taking weekends to reset and recharge, but that you will be available by phone if something truly urgent comes up, seems like a way for both sides to flag concerns and talk through a realistic plan going forward.

    1. Beatrice*

      I liked this one, too! One thing I do on vacations, that might help, is set the expectation that someone who needs to reach me needs to call or text, not email (because if I’m reading emails, I’m going to wind up working), and that my response time to texts and calls may not be immediate, but I’ll respond within a timeframe (I tell them 2 hours, half a day, or within 24 hours, depending on what I’m doing). I’m in a role where people need to know how available I am, and there’s some expectation that I’ll normally be able to respond at least briefly within a day unless I’m very explicit that I can’t, like if I’m out of the country or camping in the wilds of Montana where there’s no cell reception.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I had a boss once who made a point of taking vacations in places where there was no cell service. This isn’t possible today, I don’t think, but it was very possible then, and I was very impressed that he did that. (He was 2-3 layers up in middle-management so he had the kind of job that was all meetings.)

  9. Verde*

    I took the email icon of the face of my phone so I wouldn’t see new messages come in – had to actively go look at it. Then, I used any chance I got to emphasize to co-workers that I started looking at email when I got on the bus in the morning, stopped when I got off the bus in the evening, and didn’t look at it on weekends. If something house-on-fire urgent came up, they knew to text or call. Otherwise, I would get back to them Monday morning. I figured if something is urgent, the onus is on the sender to escalate the urgency. i.e. send the email with info/details, then text me and let me know that there’s something I need to look at right away.

  10. SeluciaMD*

    My boss and I are the two people at the top of the hierarchy in our organization and we’re often working on things at night or on the weekends because of the nature of our work and our schedules. Before I was in the role I’m in now, I used to worry about this same thing because my boss is the kind that will email you at 4 am (she’s an early riser) or 9 pm when she happens to be working on something or thinking of something. We’ve worked together for about a decade now but it took me a couple of years to realize that those were just her habits and were not any kind of reflection on what her expectations for me were. She’s a great boss all in all but it never occurred to her that people would get her emails at weird times and assume that she was sitting there waiting for an answer – she was pretty chagrined to learn otherwise!

    While I’ve adopted a similar work style as my role in the organization has grown, my early experience made me realize that it’s something that needs to be explained to staff. I’ve made it part of my regular check-ins with existing staff – and part of the on-boarding process for new staff – to make sure they are clear about this and that they understand that unless the message is flagged as urgent or needing a response ASAP, the expectation is to address it when you are back at work.

    While I mostly agree with Allison’s advice here, I think it’s probably worth a quick check in with at least one of the higher-ups before just deciding to go cold turkey. I agree that carving out work-free time is really crucial to maintaining sanity and managing stress but I suspect you’ll get better results if you have a check in conversation to better understand their expectations and process and/or better set boundaries around your time. They may expect that you will check in at night or on weekends but if you frame it as needing to know you have some uninterrupted time that is work-free and propose one of the other solutions offered here (checking once for urgent messages or asking that anything that can’t wait until Monday be flagged with a text or something instead of just using email) that should ensure everyone gets what they need. That being said, I hope they tell you to stop checking your email on evenings and weekends so you can just unplug without that hanging over your head! :)

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