The Color of Money / Home & Consumer

Color of Money: You've Got (Too Much) Mail

WASHINGTON -- I do not have any nonworking hours. There, I said it. There are just no hours in my day that are totally off-limits to working either for my day job or for the numerous other things I do -- including being a volunteer director of a ministry at my church, which at times feels like a full-time job.

I'm not complaining. I love what I do. I'm just stating the obvious for a working mother of three. So yes, I've written emails at 3 a.m. although I don't expect someone to respond immediately. (I'm often surprised when they do.)

Knowing what I know about my work life, I was intrigued by a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, which found that 21 percent of organizations have a formal policy that limits employees' use of wireless devices such as cellphones and tablets during nonworking hours for work purposes. Twenty-six percent have informal policies limiting their use.

I get why companies are concerned about employees maintaining a balance between work and home life. Overworked and stressed staff can be a problem. But sometimes I work the hours when it's reasonable for one to be asleep so that I can attend a function at my kid's school the afternoon or evening before. Or I need to carve out daytime hours to help my husband when he takes his 83-year-old father to a doctor's appointment.

There are two dynamics at play when it comes to how much our work life bleeds into our personal time. There are people like me who have employment situations that allow them to choose to work long, unusual hours for personal reasons.

And then there are employees who work after hours because that's the office norm. It's the culture that has been created by their employer. They know they had better quickly respond to a supervisor's email even in non-emergency work situations. They know they have to stay connected to stay employed or if they want to move up the corporate ladder.

I had a friend who had taken off to attend a church-related women's retreat. She had purposely put in extra hours to make sure nothing was left undone during her absence. But her boss kept emailing her about a report. She missed most of the retreat emailing information. At one point she broke down wiping away tears while tapping furiously on her Blackberry.

I asked readers to weigh in on employers having a communications curfew.

"I would love having the sending and receiving of emails blocked after certain hours," wrote Bonny from New York. "That doesn't mean I can't still write them -- they'd be in my outbox, ready to go when I log in next morning. Additionally, I'd have more after hours free time to work on the project I have, without interruptions from email. You know, those PowerPoint presentations, Visio process flows, Access queries, and Excel data analyses that require uninterrupted thinking time, often not achievable during a busy workday."

Is working on your time off a reflection of your job commitment? One employer thought so.

"I would never hire an employee who isn't willing to check their emails after work and sometimes work on weekends," the person said in an email to me. "I was taught to value the importance of a job. Obviously others feel differently. Plus, I am very generous about letting my employees leave for children's school events, etc. I expect a similar type of loyalty and respect. Workers need to understand that employers need to provide the products and services or there will be no jobs. I have taken significant pay cuts during this recession so as not to lay off employees. The idea that checking their email on weekends isn't fair is repulsive to me."

Of the organizations that do not have a formal or informal policy about wireless communication during nonworking hours, the majority leave it up to their employees to set their own limits. That's smart.

People have personal lives and it may become necessary to do things after the formal working hours. In these cases, when possible, responsible employees should be allowed to work off hours to get the job done.

But on the flip side, it's important to strive for balance so that you aren't handcuffed to your workplace communication device or always writing emails at 3 in the morning.

The common sense and ideal situation is for both employers and employees to remain flexible with their time.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is singletarym@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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