Why Your Emails Are Driving Employees Nuts

If you're guilty of sending urgent emails to workers around the clock, you may be creating resentment and burnout. Here are 6 rules to make sure you balance your needs with employees' need to have a life.
August 20, 2013

It’s midnight and you’re bursting with energy as you sit in your home office, powering through a massive project. Do you fire off a bunch of emails to your employees asking them to do X, Y and Z? Or do you hold back until morning?

More and more bosses are choosing the former approach. More than one-third (36 percent) of employees say their bosses regularly email them after work hours expecting a response, according to a study by Right Management. Nine percent get such emails while on vacation and 6 percent get them on weekends.

While senior-level managers or key employees often need to be available 24/7 in case of emergencies, Monika Morrow, senior vice president of Career Management at Right Management, says the survey suggests emailing employees during their off hours is no longer reserved for emergencies, but is becoming routine. And these aren’t just informational emails, Morrow emphasizes, but ones requesting immediate response or action.

There are several reasons behind the trend, according to the survey. With more employees working virtually, and more companies using outsourced contractors, employees may have supervisors in other time zones or even other countries who are just sitting down to work at the same time other employees are sitting down to dinner.

Another factor is the entrepreneurial personality. Your business is your baby, and you’re happy to work on it day and night. But even the most dedicated employee won’t have the same level of passion for the company that you do. Add to that the fact that entrepreneurs are often impulsive and full of great ideas, and it’s easy to see how energetic business owners can overwhelm their staff with “urgent” emails at 3 a.m.

Overwhelm is the key word here. Attempts to make your business more productive by raining endless emails (or texts, or phone calls) on your team are doomed to backfire. If your employees never get time to unplug, rest and recharge, but feel like they’re at your beck and call even during Thanksgiving dinner, at bedtime or during their child’s school play, they’re going to become resentful at best, burnt-out and ineffective at worst.

So how can you strike a balance between your “need it now” mentality and your employees’ need to eat, sleep and have a conversation with their families that isn’t interrupted by you buzzing their smartphones? Here are some tips.

Put yourself in their shoes. Before you send an email, text or make a call, stop and think about the person on the other end. Is it 5 a.m. where they are? Did they just leave the office 20 minutes ago after working on a big project? Is it Yom Kippur, Christmas Eve or the first day of their long-planned European vacation? If so, hold back.

Make distinctions. Some employees do need to be available 24/7. For instance, if you own an online retail business, your webmaster knows that receiving a frantic call during Thanksgiving dinner because the company’s website is down is just part of the job. For the rest of the team, set some guidelines about what’s urgent and what’s not.

Make it clear. Some bosses send stream-of-consciousness emails—one email for every thought that comes into their heads, often contradicting each other. If this is you, try jotting down these thoughts and working through them until you can formulate one clear email with all the pertinent information.

Don’t send teasers. “Hi Jim, Don’t worry about it this weekend, but a big problem has come up with the Randolph project.” (Great—now Jim’s ulcer is going to act up for the next 48 hours.) “Sue, we need to discuss something. Please be in my office first thing tomorrow.” (What you’re discussing is her promotion, but she thinks she’s getting fired and can’t sleep all night.) Information that’s likely to be misinterpreted is best conveyed in person and during work hours.

Write now, send later. If you get a great idea and can’t resist composing a 4 a.m. email, that’s fine, just don’t send it till later. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail and add-ons like Boomerang (for Outlook and Gmail) enable you to compose emails and then set the date and time you want them sent. The feature isn’t built in to Apple’s Mail, but apps like LetterMeLater and Laytr work with Mail, or you can integrate your Gmail account with Mail to make the feature work.

Set a policy. You may be the worst offender at sending ill-timed emails, but the practice has probably trickled down to your managers. Start fresh by calling an all-hands meeting and sharing the new policy for sending emails that are sensitive to employees’ needs to have a life. Your employees will thank you.  

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