Oh, Baby! No Boundaries to Checking Work E-mail

By Kathy Gurchiek June 18, 2014

You’ve got mail. Or you think you might have mail. E-mail, that is. So you check—at the dinner table, during family outings, while sick or even when attending a funeral—because, like the ocean tide, e-mail never stops. 

And technology has made it easy to check your mailbox, anytime, anywhere: In the extreme, 6 percent of 503 U.S. workers admitted that they pulled up their e-mail while in labor (or while their spouse was in labor), according to a May 2013 survey for GFI Software.

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of survey respondents said they checked their work e-mail at least once a day outside of regular office hours. A survey of 500 workers at small to midsize employers in the U.K. found similar results.

“E-mail has transformed the way we do business globally, but has also had a fundamental impact on work/life balance for many employees, especially in smaller organizations where speed of response to orders and queries is critical in retaining competitive advantage against larger competition,” said Phil Bousfield, general manager of IT operations at GFI Software, in a news release. 

Good Technology, a mobile device management company, estimated that U.S. adult workers spend an average of seven extra hours each week checking e-mail after heading home—or more than a month and a half of overtime per year. Its data is based on a 2012 survey of 1,000 respondents. 

The likelihood that the percentage has since dropped is doubtful. Sixty-seven percent of cellphone owners check their phone for messages, alerts or calls even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating, the Pew Research Center found in a January 2014 survey, and 44 percent have slept with their phone next to the bed so as not to miss any calls, texts or updates during the night.

But while some employees feel pressured to respond to clients and supervisors, even after hours, others monitor their e-mail to stay organized and on top of work demands. Most workers surveyed for GFI Software said e-mail was a blessing, not a curse.

“It may be that they enjoy the convenience of easily checking in from home instead of putting in late hours at the office,” reported an April 30, 2014, article by Gallup. The national polling organization found that 79 percent of the 3,865 full-time U.S. employees it surveyed in 2014 liked being able to use their computers and mobile devices to stay connected to work outside of normal working hours.

“For many people, the ability to stay connected adds value to their work and personal lives. We’re learning that not everyone wants to power down, and that’s OK,” said David W. Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association (APA), in a news release. Nearly two-thirds of 1,084 U.S. workers told the APA’s Center for Organizational Leadership in 2013 that staying connected is good for their productivity and balance.

It’s no wonder then, that about a week after the third annual No Email Day was observed globally April 4, 2014, headlines reporting—inaccurately—that France had banned workers from responding to emails after 6 p.m. lit up the Twitterverse. 

Turns out, there is no such law. 

But e-mail bans are in play at some companies looking to curtail after-hours use. PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services, named one of Atlanta’s “Top Workplaces for 2014,” introduced “no e-mail Fridays” in June 2006. 

Eight years later, the ban is still in effect at the logistics and supply chain. It has become part of the company’s culture and is addressed during new-hire orientation, said Lisa Williams, SPHR, senior vice president of human resources, customer service and client services.​

“It’s the exception, not the rule, that people spend hours and hours after work [sending e-mails],” she said of PBD, a third-party fulfillment company with call centers in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. 

The Friday ban was initiated “to encourage a better work/life balance among employees who were sending e-mails late at night,” she said. It required some tweaking as employees found ways to work around it, such as timing e-mails to go out on Monday.

Today the company is less stringent with its 350 employees than in the early days, when people put quarters into a jar whenever they busted the ban. Williams thinks it’s because the behavior has changed. Today, employees “don’t e-mail the way they did before; 90 percent don’t e-mail on Fridays,” she said, and fewer e-mails are sent throughout the week.

“Our goal is to get people to talk to each other,” Williams said, adding that e-mail can be used as a follow-up to that conversation. “Then that e-mail has a different tone. We talk about not problem solving by e-mail.”

Downplaying e-mail for work “works for us. It won’t work for everybody,” she said. “Some of our new IT guys get really freaked out when we talk about it."

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

Related Articles:

Survey: Workplace Email Needs Overhaul, HR News, June 2012

Workplace Internet Bans Worry Generation Y, HR News, June 2008

Company Ban on Friday Internal E-mails Still Working, HR News, August 2007

Related Resources:

E-mails, SHRM Templates and Tools, Sample Policies

Express Request: SHRM members can receive additional information on this topic. Visit our Express Request service and select key term etiquette e-mail in the “Technology” section.


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