Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What to Do When Your Boss/Colleague/Client Sends that 2:00 a.m. Email

One of our hardworking and probably overworked clients came to us with a dilemma. They had just seen that email from someone important that popped into their inbox well outside normal working hours. Should they reply at a “normal” time or answer it right away?

Work life balance is one of the hottest topics for many professionals. Balancing home and office is difficult. Sometimes it’s hard because the two overlap physically, like when we always have our phones and laptops with us. Sometimes it’s hard because they overlap in time, like when we find ourselves answering emails when we would rather be dealing with our children, or having to schedule personal errands during office hours.

We prefer to call the issue work life choice. Psychologists believe the root cause of stress is the feeling of not having control. Whether it’s an actual loss of control or a perceived loss of control is irrelevant. If you believe you can’t cope and you have no choice you’ll feel stressed. If you think you just have to answer that email right now, chances are you’ll feel stressed because you’ve lost control of the situation.

The solutions are to find ways to cope, re-establish that you have a choice or both.

In the case of our client, they had a hard working boss who had spent twenty years in their industry and had very little work life separation. Emails came at all hours and there was an expectation our client would be answering them as they arrived.

We tried two tactics to cope and get some control back.

Firstly, they had to manage their boss’s expectations. If you receive an email and reply straight away you’re setting up the expectation that you’re working at all hours. In fact you are training your boss in what works. Don’t be surprised at getting emails at odd hours if you’re training your boss or client that that’s when you work too.

Our client felt they had to look at the emails in case they were urgent. Of course, if you’ve seen an email and it is urgent, reply straight away. However, by replying straight away to everything, you set the expectation that even the non-urgent gets attention and it’s OK to work this way.

Try an email scheduler. Google “Schedule Email Delivery” with your email platform (Gmail, Outlook or whatever.) You’ll find a bunch of tools that can send non-urgent emails at what you think is the most reasonable soonest time. (You can write the email whenever and schedule it to send at 7:00 a.m. on Monday morning.)  Our client satisfied their need to check the emails without training their boss that they were available all hours. Now they look like an early riser or eager beaver and not a workaholic.

In most cases scheduling the replies for a civilized hour will train the email sender to expect their email will be replied to promptly without assuming you need to reply to it straight away. That may be all you need to do to get some control back.

What about the sender who expects an immediate reply, even to non-urgent matters outside of your “work” time?

Here is where we employed the second tactic. Have a respectful candid conversation, but start by thinking from your client or boss back. In other words, check what their story is first, then respond firmly and fairly with yours. It might go like this:

“I had a number of emails from you on the weekend and I know you were working until very late. I’m sure sometimes some of those are urgent and need to be attended to. I wonder if some of them don’t need to be replied to until Monday or later. Can we have a talk about how you’d like me to deal with them?”

Of course, some bosses or clients might just expect that you should be replying to every email whenever they send them. That’s a different discussion. Most reasonable people at this point will help you find a way to recognize the urgent and leave the rest until later.  

Do you want to discuss this topic in greater detail? Contact Koliso.

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