Flexible Working or Never Switched Off?

A number of years ago I noticed that the secretary to the committee I was chairing was regularly sending me emails late at night. Concerned the organisation was overloading the woman so that she could only catch up by working 10 or 12 hour days, I inquired gently what was going on. ‘It’s my choice’, she said, ‘I like having time at the end of the school day to be with my children so I make up the hours by doing email late at night from home. I’m not being overworked.’ I was reassured in this case. Nevertheless, creeping hours of work can (and often do) affect many of us.

It is hard to know when flexible working ceases and never switching-off starts. I no longer have children at home to worry about, but I still like the flexibility academic life offers: flexibility to go shopping not at a weekend or over lunch, or to stick a visit to my mother (or now my mother’s emptying house) on the end of a London morning meeting. Flexibility not to feel guilty for doing so. Then when I work at the weekend or during the evening I think nothing of it. I’m not counting the hours. For me, that works fine. I’d like to think other people similarly choose to work to suit their own lives but realise this is an impossible luxury for many.

However maybe my expectations aren’t always so clear. As a leader perhaps I am conveying the wrong message by emailing at times to suit me. This was brought home to me when, after returning from a trip away and trying to clear my email in the evening, I fired off an email while things were fresh in my mind. It wasn’t urgent; the need for a reply was not pressing. Imagine my embarrassment when I got up the next morning to find the recipient sending me a reply at 0730 apologising for the delay. No, I thought, that wasn’t necessary. I replied and pointed out that, just because I chose to work at night, I had no expectation others would or should. However, that may not be sufficient to reassure junior colleagues – and I certainly don’t automatically put such a health warning on every message sent outside core hours. Nevertheless, I believe ‘forbidding’ out of hours emails will make things harder for those who want to tailor their own hours of work to suit their circumstances, at least as much as ease the burden who those who feel a pressure to be forever online.

Holiday provides another decision minefield. Your thought might be ‘I’m just keeping an eye on things’; or perhaps ‘the world will grind to a halt if I don’t know what’s happening and respond even though I’m meant to be totally relaxing and forgetting the cares of work’; or (the old-fashioned form that I suspect fewer and fewer of us adopt) ‘I’m on holiday; I don’t want to know’. It used to be the norm for people to vanish for a few weeks over the summer and, when communication was via snailmail or landline, that was that. These days this view may be commoner in Poppleton University than in any real institution. Perhaps your working world can carry on fine if you genuinely forget work for a week (or two), but expectations of rapid turn-around of correspondence are higher than they used to be. For me, the question is whether it is better to know what is being stored up against your return and know that it’s not so bad, or to spend a week resolutely not checking the inbox but still worrying about what’s unknowingly arriving. Now I have a PA who keeps an eye on things in my absence, I can rely on her to text me if there’s something I really do need to know (possibly even act upon) which can take the pressure off the sneaky peeking at the inbox. Nevertheless, the real drawback is if you peek and then find that there is a major disaster looming, a situation I am glad to say has not yet hit me.

Email is a fantastic boon and simultaneously a nightmare incubus/succubus (I am unsure of the gender of email!). It sucks life out of our free time, means we are in danger of never switching off, and yet also means that when a swift response is needed, the means is there to achieve it. One only has to read depressing nineteenth century novels, especially those pre-dating the telegraph, to realise the extent of misery caused by the absence of rapid means of contact. Your son might be lying in a wretched state, critically injured in the Crimea, but the turn-around of weeks first to hear the sad news, and then the necessity of relying on boat to take you back to watch him potentially breath his last must have added immeasurably to the pain of loss. Now email/text and aeroplane (not to mention modern healthcare) would lead to a totally different story.

I come down on the side of thinking out of hours working to fit in with the other elements of personal life is a plus. I like the freedom to choose my modus operandi of examining my inbox and hope recipients of my messages understand that I appreciate others may not choose the same way of life. However, holidays…..for me personally the jury is still out as to the optimum way of proceeding.

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6 Responses to Flexible Working or Never Switched Off?

  1. Ruth says:

    Thanks for this Athene.
    Such a range of views on this amongst my friends, all reflecting their particular personalities and circumstances.
    I have liked having the ability to email at all hours as a way of keeping in touch even if I wasn’t there physically through the birth of two children, breast-feeding, making pasta while talking on the phone, a whole range of part-time and flexible arrangements and now young teenage children and other caring responsibilities. I was the person who left early and then emailed late.
    I don’t expect it to work for others but it has worked for me. In fact sometimes it was the only way to make arrangements work.
    My red line for flexible technology is face time. I do not want to have to do my hair, take of a dressing gown or tidy a kitchen before I take a call.

  2. Paul Kent says:

    Excellent post. Totally agree that out of hours working can be a plus and the fusion of work and life similarly can be to the benefit of both.
    It does however need to be a mutually beneficial activity and in the same way that some periods may be dominated by work, covers Ely there must be no penalty when life takes the lead.
    The risk to any person who is always switched on is burnout and loss of focus. Email begets email and a cycle of work is often created where a quick phone call or face to face at a more appropriate time would have brought a quicker solution. That said, sometimes the advantage of the flexible worker to be always available could be advantageous to an organisation.
    Interestingly, there are legislative considerations also with the eager flexible worker going beyond the bounds of a max 48hr week or not adhering to specified rest periods.

  3. Clara says:

    Thanks for this Athene – I think the creeping from flexible to always on is really dangerous. There also seems to be an assumption in some quarters that workers will always have email on – if I’m doing some difficult work such as writing then it’s shut, and I’m probably ignoring the phone too. As an academic it’s just not always top of my agenda to be responding to others!

    However what I really wanted to point out here is that often the same technology which allows these quick responses at the time convenient to you can allow you to control when they arrive with the sender. In Outlook for example one can delay the message being delivered until a reasonably civilised hour (8am perhaps) so it is awaiting the person when they first check email in the morning but not causing stress if they check email last thing at night, or even overnight.

    Most messages I send over the weekend or in the evenings get delayed in this way – I see no point in stressing out my students or in starting a work discussion which I’m not really willing to engage in at that time, but none the less want to move out of my head rather than needing to remember to do it later. It’s a great strategy which has reduced my stress around email and “out of hours” working.

  4. Laurence Cox says:

    You can always set priorities on your emails. In Outlook you have a choice of High/Normal/Low


    Or just write the priority as the first part of of your subject line.

  5. Steve says:

    work-life balance:
    I don’t expect a reply to this email from you outside of your normal working hours.
    Similarly please expect the same from me.I have some text at the bottom of my emails that says “

  6. Steve says:

    Sorry. Messed that up. I have some text at the bottom of my emails that says..”I aspire to achieve a sensible work life balance:
    I don’t expect a reply to this email from you outside of your normal working hours.
    Similarly please expect the same from me.”

    It seems to work and others have adopted it in my institution now. It leaves people the freedom to email at any time (including me) but it is the compulsion or requirement to respond that is removed.

    I also try to let my staff know I switch off the emails at times – for holidays and mostly at weekends. It’s just a good idea once in a while…

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