After-hours work e-mailing sends unsettling message

  • Article by: BETH TEITELL , Boston Globe
  • Updated: May 12, 2014 - 12:02 PM

Employees who stay too connected risk setting a precedent they may regret later.

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Many nights, the e-mails from his boss arrived between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m. — “no man’s land,” in Michael Bodnar’s words.

“I wouldn’t know if he was starting his workday wicked early, or if he hadn’t gone to sleep yet — or if he never slept,” said Bodnar, a data center manager from Ashland, Mass.

“He used it to strategic advantage,” said Bodnar, who has moved on from the vampire boss but remains agitated at the memory. “He would draw you into something in the middle of the night. He’d plant a seed of doubt.”

Even as some U.S. firms boast about policies that encourage workers to unplug — allowing unlimited vacation time, for example, or discouraging after-hours e-mails — many workers like Bodnar say they are afraid to go offline. The employee who sleeps through a 3 a.m. e-mail risks losing out on business.

If only they lived in France. Last month, labor unions and corporate representatives there agreed to limit after-hours e-mails. The agreement, which would give workers an 11-hour e-mail-free window, aims to improve work-life balance. Word of the French e-mail limits went viral in the United States, where work is increasingly encroaching on the rest of life, one message at a time.

More than four of 10 cellphone-owning adults have slept near their phones so that they don’t miss a text or an e-mail, according to 2012 data from the Pew Internet Project.

Statistics on the volume of late-night work-related e-mails are hard to come by, but one thing is clear: Middle-of-the-night e-mailing is a source of stress — on both sides of the “send” button.

Consider Liz Cohen, executive director of Families First Parenting Programs in Cambridge, Mass., and a bad sleeper. She’s also a boss who often sends e-mails at 3 a.m.

“I’ll come in the next day, and my staff will be like, ‘Had a rough night?’ ” she said. “It’s not good. I’m broadcasting that I don’t have good boundaries. I’m setting unfair expectations for a nonprofit where the salaries aren’t high. I’m modeling bad behavior.”

No one is forcing Cohen to sit up typing late at night, but even so, she’s so eager to get back to bed that she makes typos and skips niceties.

“I won’t start with, ‘Dear so-and-so,’ or I don’t sign my name,” she said. “I’ve gotten negative feedback.”

Indeed, the hour at which an e-mail is sent is so significant — in some cases, the timing of the message has become the message — that subscription services have cropped up to automatically send an e-mail hours after it was written. Alexander Moore, the founder of one such service, Boomerang, which charges up to $15 per month and works with Gmail and Microsoft Outlook, says that not everyone is trying to conceal late-night habits. Some users want to give that impression and schedule e-mails written during the workday to take flight late at night. “It goes both ways,” he said.

But deception can backfire. Moore has been the victim of his own success. As the head of a start-up, and a man who likes to sleep from 1 until 9 a.m., he regularly writes updates for investors in the middle of the night, then schedules them to go out through Boomerang at 6 a.m. “One day I got a call from an investor at 6:45 a.m.,” Moore said. “He said he knew I’d be up because I always e-mail then.”

Bosses to blame?

In Cambridge, Lauren Holliday is new to her marketing job at Launch Academy, a boot camp for aspiring software engineers, and worries about the impression she’ll make on others if they know she’s up at all hours.

“I don’t want to look too obsessed,” she said. “People might wonder, ‘Where is your work-life balance? I have a family, why don’t you?’ ”

But even as corporate America preaches the importance of work-life balance, when the boss is the one e-mailing late, it sends the message that around-the-clock work is expected, said Allison Rimm, a Boston-based management consultant.

“You can have all the policies in the world,” she said. “But if you are the leader, and you’re sending late-night e-mails, that creates a certain culture. It’s a real leadership issue.”

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