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Emails at 5:00 a.m.?: Communication Norms to Support Work-Life Harmony

by | Jun 12, 2024

Your boss emails you at 5:00 a.m. A team member pings you on Slack at 10:00 p.m. Your co-worker is sending emails on their vacation. Problem? Not necessarily. The real issue arises if you feel obligated to send or respond to messages in the same manner they do. 

I recently chatted with a leader who said he sometimes wakes up early with ideas or questions and wonders if it’s okay to email that early. My take? Send off that 5:00 a.m. email! Here’s why.

There may be well-intentioned rules designed to protect work-life harmony — restrictions on when people should send messages and when they should not. But guess what? Those rules can actually harm employee’s freedom and harmony instead of helping. 

Work-Life Harmony: Integration & Separation 

Our research shows work-life harmony is about both integration and separation. People can be different blends of the two but separators thrive with a clean “start” and “stop” time in their work day. They do best when they keep their work life and personal life in separate spheres. Separators can tend to work best in more of a routine schedule. If you are a separator you mostly prefer to leave work at work and want to feel you can opt out of checking and responding to emails and notifications before or after hours. 

Integrators like to blur the boundaries between work and home. Integration may look like starting the work day early, taking a few hours off in the afternoon to run errands or be at your kid’s soccer game, and catching up on emails in the evening. This freedom is 100% what I need for greater work-life harmony. If you’re an integrator, not having enough autonomy and flexibility at work can stress you out. I do my best when I can manage my own time and adapt my schedule to whatever life throws at me that day or week. I like to manage my day around my energy and when my brain is best and optimize my time most efficiently with all I want to accomplish. 

Freedom is an Important Aspect of Work-Life Harmony

Communication rules may work for separators, giving them the structure they need. But for integrators, these rules can feel like a straitjacket, restricting our freedom and disrupting our harmony. I would personally find it more overwhelming to have 9:00 a.m. roll around with my inbox flooded with every email that was on a “delayed send” to be sent within work hours. Others may feel differently. Neither is right, we are all just different. Well-being is personal and it’s a truth that we do not honor enough in our workplaces. 

Freedom is about choice. Giving employees as many options of the who, what, when, where, and why in their work life as possible. It’s important to value both work-life harmony and freedom, making it clear that these things matter, and empowering employees with the awareness and choices for them to meet these needs for themselves and support others who may meet these needs in a similar or different way from them.

The best approach? Make inclusive norms collectively. If you really want to care for the well-being of your people it’s not about exclusive rules it’s about:

  • Rules and processes that are inclusive and are created together (rather than from the top-down) 
  • Encouraging employees to set and keep boundaries to honor their needs 
  • Open communication around things like communication preferences 
  • Allowing employees to “turn off” and “turn on” in a way that prevents burnout

My team members are not surprised if they see an email from me at 5:00 a.m., which is when I start work a few days a week. They are not thrown off to see a new “to do” item come through in our project management system at 8:00 pm. either. They know I am an integrator and that I do not expect them to be. 

Leading Inclusive Communication Norms

If you are a leader, encourage your team to discuss how they can best achieve harmony and freedom. If they decide collectively they will thrive with restricted communication times then by all means that is a good route to take but if they don’t then don’t force rules in an attempt to uplift work-life balance. What matters most is to set clear expectations, understand each other’s preferences, and recognize diverse working styles. If Slack fatigue is an issue, collaborate on strategies and processes to address it. Let your team know they can turn off notifications after work hours or keep them on if they prefer. Normalize different approaches and individualism. Some team members may prefer to check a few emails during vacation to avoid feeling overwhelmed upon return, while others might choose to set an out-of-office reply and fully disconnect.

So, fire off that 5:00 a.m. email BUT only if you’ve ensured no one feels pressured to respond.