Mon, May 20, 2024

After-Hours Email: Do We Really Need a Law?

A few weeks ago, I was watching a Saturday morning news show when a story came on about a proposed California law to give employees the legal right to ignore non-emergency calls and emails once the workday ends. Though this would be the first such law in the United States, similar laws are more prevalent in Europe and Australia. My first thought upon hearing about this proposed legislation was to consider whether such a law was necessary, practical, and/or enforceable. The discussion about the increase of after-hours email has been going on for the better part of the decade, and like many issues, was further intensified by the pandemic, and has remained a front-burner topic ever since. In today’s column, I will first discuss the problem of after-hour emails, review the legislative efforts around the world, look more closely at the practicality of the proposed California law, and then discuss how companies can best address after-hour emails and how they impact company culture.

Work-life balance has clearly become a highly discussed topic in recent years and what many of us try to achieve as best we can during our careers. As the prevalence of electronic technology has increased our availability through cellphones (calls and texts) and emails, the lines have further blurred in terms of when our workday begins and ends. Since about 2015, we have seen a preponderance of articles both in academia and in the popular press indicating how such technology has led to increased expectations of availability of employees beyond normal work hours, which has led many employees to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. During the height of the pandemic, when most were working remotely from home, things were further exacerbated by greater co-mingling of work with life. In the post-pandemic years, there is general agreement that so-called “after-hours” emails and phone calls (or at least responses to them) need to be reduced, but the question is how best to do it, particularly when this is clearly a situation where a “one size fits all” solution does not seem practical.

However, that has not stopped several countries or jurisdictions within countries to attempt to legislate away after-hour emails and phone calls. This legislation is particularly prevalent in the European Union.  France was a pioneer of such legislation prior to the pandemic, enacting a law in August 2016 allowing employees to turn off their cell phones and other electronic devices outside of set working hours. In addition, companies with fifty or more employees are required to set specific hours when staff cannot send or receive emails. Italy (2017), Spain (2018), and Ireland (2021) followed suit with laws providing workers with the right to disconnect from work. Portugal established a law in November 2021 such that companies of ten or more staff face fines for contacting staff outside of set working hours. More recently, Australia and parts of Canada have begun implementing legislation related to worker rights to disconnect. Clearly, there are efforts around the world attempting to legislate this issue.

However, the proposed California bill is the first of this kind in the United States. The bill would require employers to have an agreement with their employees establishing their working hours and granting them the right to ignore off-hours communications, except in the case of an emergency or for scheduling changes affecting the next 24 hours. If the boss breaks the agreement three times, employees could then report them to California’s labor commissioner, and they would be subject to fines starting at $100.

While the intent of this law to improve work-life balance is admirable, it does not seem practical. Unfortunately, these “blanket” measures rarely work when there are so many idiosyncratic situations facing many businesses. Smaller businesses, particularly startups, who have individuals who must juggle multiple duties tend to have to communicate more regularly, and often their business can be online if certain things are not addressed immediately. On the other end of the spectrum, a large company with people in different time zones will find it extremely difficult to set more limited hours. For instance, my daughter works for a public company whose headquarters are in the Central U.S. time zone, while she lives in the Pacific U.S. time zone and has customers in the Eastern U.S. time zone. There are days when she has an early morning meeting with an Eastern time zone client, well before her “normal workday.” For companies with numerous employees like her, this can be difficult to manage. Such legislation could significantly reduce workplace flexibility. Finally, I think it would be difficult for a government agency to investigate and process employee complaints related to this law.

So, what should be done, given that after-hours connectivity is difficult to legislate, but clearly a problem? This is where I think the marketplace will drive changing behavior. We have learned in recent years that employees, particularly the younger Gen Zs, value workplace culture more than just pay. On their own, companies, or better yet, their managers, can set the standard for leading work-life balance discussions and policies by making communication clear to their employees concerning their approach to after-hours communication. After serving in organizations in which some handled it better than others, here is an approach that I found works well. I told my people that I would rarely email or call them between 6 pm and 8 am during the work week and at any time during weekends. I also told them that I would only call them during those hours if it was a true emergency. I let them know that if I emailed during those hours, the first thing in my email was to let them know if I expected a response immediately or if it could wait until the next workday. Some of my people like to be able to think about things for longer and appreciate being informed during non-work hours. I learned only to send emails “after hours” if it was really important or something that a person would like to know ahead of time. It is important for you to know your people’s preferences.

There is no “silver bullet” to solve this problem of after-hours emails that legislation can solve.  Rather it requires supervisors/bosses who respect their employees and their families and treat them accordingly. People vote with their feet and by having a respectful after-hours connectivity policy, you will have a better culture which will lead to better recruitment and retention.

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