How did you handle new expectations for checking and responding to your work e-mail outside of normal business hours?
May 27, 2012 2:06 PM   Subscribe

How did you handle new expectations for checking and responding to your work e-mail outside of normal business hours?

The folks I work for have recently made it clear that they expect me to check and respond to e-mail messages sent to my work account in the evening and on weekends.

This hasn't previously been expected of me, but I've recently moved up a bit on the org chart. The people I report to have also fairly recently joined the company, and are expecting greater availability from their staff than people they replaced did.

My initial reaction was to be angry about it, as it feels like I will end up always thinking about work when I should be doing enjoyable things and relaxing.

However, it's not an unusual expectation for senior IT staff, and I know lots of people do it, including the people who are setting this expectation.

So now I would like to find out how other MeFites handle this sort of thing in a healthy way, and especially how you handled the transition when this type of expectation was suddenly placed on you.

How did you learn to handle not being able to completely "unplug" from work any more? Or did you reject that demand and deal with it some other way, like changing jobs, changing employers, or changing careers?
posted by FishBike to Work & Money (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I actually prefer it. I can shoot off an email while I'm on the toilet, stuck in traffic, or waiting for a pot to boil. That's one less surprise to deal with on Monday or in the morning when I arrive. It takes a few extra minutes from my "free" time but also means I don't feel so bad quickly checking my personal email when I'm "on the clock." Moderation is key.
posted by Pomo at 2:09 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not in this position, but I have a friend who is. She sets specific times during the evening and the weekends when she checks and responds to her email; something like 9-9:30 PM every weeknight, and twice a day on the weekends. It helps her keep work in its box and keep it from taking over her life.
posted by KathrynT at 2:12 PM on May 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

I try REALLY hard to only respond to emails that need to be responded to outside work hours. And I try really hard to only open emails that look like they can't wait. I also don't check after a certain hour that is close to bedtime (8:30) unless I know a crisis is in progress or likely. And I try to nip expectations in the bud and keep them reasonable (I.e. I won't check emails after 8:30.)
posted by semacd at 2:21 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not so bad as long as you have a quick & easy way to respond. If you have access via phone or webmail, it will be just a few quick minutes. If you've got to boot up the work laptop, access a VPN of some sort, and run a full mail client, then I'm not sure they should expect it so much.
posted by kellyblah at 2:25 PM on May 27, 2012

My workplace has this expectation and I also kinda prefer it---I can't stand coming in to a surprise in the morning. I hooked my work email up to my phone and if it jingles, I pretty much always look (although I shut the damn thing off at bedtime lest it keep me awake all night). Just because you look and see what it is, doesn't mean you have to answer and I often don't. If it's something I can respond to quickly, I do so. But as often as not, I read it, think it over maybe, but don't deal with it til the next workday. Most things are not critical and can wait, but seeing it means I can make that call for myself.

As far as changing jobs--I would think you'd be hard pressed to find an IT job that makes any real money that doesn't sorta expect to be able to reach you most of the time. Maybe I have just always worked for jerks, but this is just standard for me and has been for years. I got used to it pretty quick, personally--it wasn't as intrusive as I thought it would be.
posted by supercapitalist at 2:26 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you get a raise commensurate with being on call 24/7? Effectively they appear to be saying you are no longer allowed to leave your phone at home.
posted by rhizome at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Did you get a raise commensurate with being on call 24/7?

I'd say so, as part of the promotion, although it wasn't specifically spelled out at the time. Basically I can't say "they're not paying me enough to do that", because I feel like they actually are.

Effectively they appear to be saying you are no longer allowed to leave your phone at home.

Yep, that's more or less the case.
posted by FishBike at 2:34 PM on May 27, 2012

When I did this, I was usually sporadic and flaky, for example checking it once at some point after I got home (which might be, say, 5:30 or might be 10:30 after I did the gym, ate, farted around, etc.), once on Saturday at 10am and once on Sunday at 2pm, that's it. I'd also only answer the things that actually needed an answer. That way I was fulfilling the letter of the law and looking relatively engaged but not devoting much time to it and not building the habit/expectation that I was always available and going to answer in a few minutes.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:43 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you need to read everyone's emails? Or just some people's? Maybe you could set up an auto-forward for just those people's emails to an account that can audibly notify you on your phone. That way, you can ignore your email except when notified, and you're only being notified about the emails that might be urgent.
posted by salvia at 2:45 PM on May 27, 2012

Lawyer here, so my client demands are slightly different than senior IT. My current job has vastly different expectations than my previous law firm job.

Now, on the weekends, I make it a point to check my email in the evening. During periods in which others are communicating with me on a crisis-mode project, I let them know when I will be able to get back to them, and, for the most part, they are respectful of that.

Even when I was working in Biglaw, I was fortunate enough to have colleagues who were (mostly) respectful of the notion that I wouldn't be billing 48 hours on the weekend. So, when I was working on a brief or coordinating stuff during the weekend, it was really a matter of letting people know when I would be able to respond, if/when I wasn't able to immediately. So, for instance, I see an email from my boss at 10am on Sunday, I respond when I see it, "Got it, will be back home and online at 3pm and will respond then." This was totally ok in most circumstances, but not if all hell's breaking loose.

Likewise, for people with kids, very common on weekday evenings to see something like, "I will call you at 10pm when I'm done with the kids", etc. In most sane circumstances bosses shouldn't have a problem with this; crisis mode, servers-on-fire stuff is always a possibility, but if you are always in crisis mode, that's when you start getting concerned.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 2:47 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

In our organization, practically everyone between Sr. Developer to CTO has a BlackBerry. The way things work here is that we use hi-pri's when we need someone to respond within 15 mins. Senders of hi-pri's tend to be those in management up to a level below VP. It get's tricky when VP's or above send you emails, they don't tend to hi-pri much. This quickly makes those of us in management a little paranoid about being "that guy" or "that girl" that didn't respond promptly to an executive.

I typically keep my work phone with me during the week. Hi-pri emails have a distinct ringtone so I know to check my email asap. I also have my work email set up on my person phone and have it configured to alert to hi-pri's as well. We typically do not get a lot of emails that require responses over the weekend, but during the week is fair game.

Like mine, I suspect your company will have a rhythm to it and you'll adjust. You'll soon figure out which ones require your response and which ones are just an FYI. I tend to get more of those than those that are actionable. I also agree with others that I'd rather not have a backlog of emails to deal with when I get to work. Sometimes perception is king so I'd rather appear to be on top of things than appear to be lagging behind or dropping the ball.
posted by SoulOnIce at 2:48 PM on May 27, 2012

At one of my previous employers who had this need of certain IT staff (to be clear, I was not on the list), they had a rotating "pager" that a person would take. When you have the pager, you are REALLY, REALLY on-call, 24 hours a day. But when you do not, someone else is, and you are only a backup, in case there is a super-emergency that the pager person can't handle.

Of course the actual pager became a metaphor as Blackberries proliferated, but the idea stayed the same. If you can get two people, that's half the time you are not on call all night. Three people, two thirds. Etc. Is your organization big enough to set up something like that?

Ultimately it is important for one's sanity to not be REALLY on call, absolutely ALL the time. You need to have certain days legitimately, fully, off. See what you can do to set that up while still mostly being available after hours.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2012

One of my jobs is like this. I ENJOY that job however. I used to respond immediately to everything, due to burn out, life/work balance and other's unrealistic expectations I have started scaling back my responses to once a day or less. Are you also expected to respond during vacations/stat holidays? I have also defined those as uncontactable time.
posted by saucysault at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2012

My experience is that the more you level up in IT, the fewer on-call responsibilities you have.

Along salvia's comment, if there's no way to avoid this, a reasonable compromise is that you can make a deal only to respond to emails sent to a particular group address (to avoid a single-point failure during an emergency). As it stands, it sounds like an extremely slippery slope susceptible to the whims of new management who may be anxious to prove their bonafides to others.

I'm highly protective of my off time, though, so establishing hard boundaries regarding who's messages have to be responded to, a filter for those messages, hard limits on response time, etc. might not be so workable for you.
posted by rhizome at 2:50 PM on May 27, 2012

Response by poster: Are you also expected to respond during vacations/stat holidays?

Yep, I am.
posted by FishBike at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2012

Here's a strategy from academia: my adviser asks that if you are contacting her using email to include in your subject heading your expectations. Like:

PLEASE REPLY: Letter of recommendation needed by 6/2/12

URGENT: Emergency Staff Meeting

FYI: Comprehensive exam reading schedule

My impression is that she only looks at "Urgent" when on vacation, and Urgent/Please Reply on weekends/"family time" hours.
posted by spunweb at 3:00 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way to manage it is to make sure everyone's on the same page as to what's a "priority" email and what can be left until Monday (or the morning.) It'd be a good idea to get that nailed down and make sure there's a method of communicating this - e.g., the subject line contains the word "priority", all emails from a particular person need an ASAP response, etc. It's also important to make sure everyone agrees on what a reasonable response time is - within the hour? within 12 hours? Are there different levels of severity?

Trouble arises when people have different expectations on those things - I'd have an email (written, documented) conversation with the stakeholders and make sure all of that is clear for everyone involved.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:00 PM on May 27, 2012

This is the new reality. Since I bill on e-mails, I think about the money. You can too.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:01 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Gosh, I hardly know anyone who isn't blackberry/smartphone tethered to their office anymore.)

I don't know a ton about IT, but most people I know who are expected to be available by e-mail on the weekends pick a set time to check and respond (most commonly first thing in the morning or after dinner in the evening) and make sure their colleagues who need to reach them know it. If you will be less available or need to be more available, you just communicate that ("I'll check every couple of hours this weekend while we upgrade Widget" or "I'm going to my kid's birthday party on Saturday so I won't be around."

Real emergencies call you on the phone.

A lot of people get Pavlovianly trained to pick up their phone when it e-mail beeps, though. You have to guard against that. You can also see about setting up a some sort of filter (or special address, or something) that will tell your phone to make a unique alert noise when it comes in, to let you know this is important and/or time sensitive. I use an app that has "noisy contacts" that are allowed to override my phone's sound settings so they always come in loud, with a special alert noise, and will even wake me in the middle of the night. People have used it exactly twice. (I use a profile manager a lot on my phone to manage times my phone is quiet, who's allowed to ring through, what sorts of messages and alerts get to make noises when, etc. I like to tinker with this, though, and I don't get a very high volume of stuff because my work is so, so part-time.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:01 PM on May 27, 2012

You'll get used to it and deal. You can usually scan an email on your blackberry and decide it can wait until morning/Monday. I don't check email in movies, on dates, etc., and the world doesn't end if I can't respond to something right away.

Mostly this is just how the world is, with the line between work and home blurring. It's kind of lame but also not a huge deal. I think it's just a question of giving yourself time to get used to it.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:08 PM on May 27, 2012

Oh, also, figure out who your backup is (you must have a backup - what happens if you get hit by a bus?) and figure out what you need to do to make sure you're actually covering each other appropriately. If the company really needs a 24/7 one-hour-response IT department, they need to actually staff it or understand that they're not going to get what they want.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:19 PM on May 27, 2012

I agree about making clear rules about times that you will answer and what constitutes 'must respond now' versus 'can deal with on Monday'.

Otherwise you end up like me in my last job, getting moronic 'ideas about system improvements' from drunks at 11:30 on Saturday night that you're expected to respond to within fifteen minutes.

There will be at least a couple of people who will ignore those rules - depending on if they're politically/positionally important in your organization will determine how you deal with them. You'll eventually figure out who is who.

It's really not that terrible. SoulonIce is right, there is a rhythm to it. But I would recommend that you be aggressive but respectful about setting limits right up front, because you'll be stuck with what you decide pretty much forever.
posted by winna at 3:30 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a lawyer, and generally expected to be available 24/7. I find that being connected by Blackberry is one of the worst things about my job.

It's one thing if the emergency emails you might receive will just require you to delegate work, or do some quick remote server reboot, drop a quick response email, or whatever. But do not underestimate the enervating effect of perpetually having the sword of Damocles hanging over your head. I have not fully relaxed in 8 years.

It is truly, truly, horrible if at any moment you could be called into the office for the rest of the day/night/weekend/holiday.

I know you say you think you're being compensated for making yourself so available, but depending on what level of activity they're seeking, I can tell you they're not paying you enough.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:47 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

My rules apply primarily for contractor/consulting people - not necessarily for employees, but here they are:

You send me an email and I read it?

That's 15 minutes of billable or trackable time.

You send me an email and I actually respond?

Thats either 30 or 60 minutes of billable/trackable time.

Which is fine, now that I am back to billing hourly (at decent rate*). It sucked a bit when I was on-call, 24/7 365 - however, I could take time off during regular daytime hours to offset - via a bankable time-tracking system.

* (For those of you contracting hourly, ensure you have a billing/support rate structure for evenings/weekends that reflects the work/life balance you expect to have... I normally charge an addition 30% for work that occurs outside of core business hours)

What is the old rule-of-thumb about setting your rates? If 3 of 5 of your current clients are not complaining about your rate, then it simply isn't high enough.
posted by jkaczor at 5:18 PM on May 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

All depends what you do.

I have always made it absolutely clear to my employers that I have no objection to taking calls or remoting in when I have absolutely nothing better to do - With the great big caveat that, while on my own time, they will virtually always find me either 1) 4+ hours from a computer (out hiking), or 2) intoxicated. But on that one rainy Saturday afternoon per year that I run out of beer? Hey, whatever, I'll help.
posted by pla at 5:41 PM on May 27, 2012

For me it is kinda complicated because there are two emails to contact me, for most people at my work one email is far easier for them to use (I am already in the address book), the other email requires them to look it up and then type the whole long email address. I have been clear that I do not check the first email outside of work hours but I do check the other. That means if something is urgent they have to make an extra effort to contact me, so often they default to the easier email and wait for me to reply during work hours. If they contact me at the work email but expect an instant reply I put it back on them for not following my directions for contacting me outside of work clearly. I have a fair amount of leverage however. If there is someone above you on the food chain that does not agree with this then there is no way to implement it.
posted by saucysault at 7:22 PM on May 27, 2012

I actually find it easier to be on top of e-mails outside work hours, because I get less surprises that have already, for example, been festering for 48 hours when I get to work on Monday morning.

I read every message and, depending on what I'm, doing, that might be anywhere from when they come in to 6-8 hours later, depending on what I'm doing. On my time, my stuff takes priority and anyone that matters at work knows that, if they want to get me on something urgently, they need to call and say so (they also know that I never answer my phone after hours for unknown or unlisted numbers). Most often, it's a case of either knowing from the preview that I don't need to worry about that message or a quick read of the message, a response saying 'yeah, this will be no problem and I'll have a paper for you by 10 tomorrow' or similar. Then I mark the message as unread and go about my life.

You need to have some discipline and sense about this, unlike one of my hiking companions who copped an incredulous 'you brought your fucking Blackberry with you?' from me recently.
posted by dg at 10:57 PM on May 27, 2012

My husband is the director for several areas and so gets anywhere from 50 to 250 mails per weekend. Checking his phone for email all day long would make him crazy and me angry (we have a 3 month baby). What he does is leave an hour or two sunday evening, usually after dinner, to answer emails and get up to date with things before getting to the office on Monday.

While on vacation he checks email maybe once every other day or so, and has a personal policy of not answering the phone on the first call (if it's unimportant they'll email later, if it's important they'll try again).
posted by CrazyLemonade at 11:02 PM on May 27, 2012

FWIW if they expect you to be live 24/7 they should be paying for your phone and/or your home internet service. They should also set out a defined level of service that the entire company is aware of. I.E. emails should be seen and responded to within x hours during work hours, and y hours after close of business and weekends. They should also publish an escalation matrix that provides alternative contacts for all the processes that they expect to be monitored 24/7.
posted by Gungho at 4:58 AM on May 28, 2012

Response by poster: Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for answering. The variety of answers is actually quite helpful. In case anyone's interested, what I'm going to do is:

1. Make sure I understand expectations in detail.
2. Try some of the things suggested here, depending on the outcome of step 1.
3. Wait a while and see if I get used to it.
posted by FishBike at 5:16 AM on May 30, 2012

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