Late-Night Work Email: Blessing or Curse?
Flexible workplace policies now enable more of us to leave the office early, put the children to bed and log on from home to finish our work.
Some celebrate the option to log on at night as freedom, a sign of success in balancing home and work. For others, it feels like the opposite of freedom—a burdensome intrusion on their home life.
Individuals differ deeply in how they manage the boundary between work and home. Yet few are aware of how different logging on from home feels to others, and this can cause tension and misunderstandings in the workplace.
“People get really annoyed at a colleague who doesn’t have the same style,” says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a management professor at Purdue University who has researched and defined differences in how people handle work-home boundaries.
Some people are integrators, allowing work and home life to bleed together. Jennifer Ashy of Dallas toggles between work and home tasks from the moment she wakes up at 5:45 a.m. Ms. Ashy, co-owner of home-care provider Visiting Angels, with her husband Michael, checks email before her three sons, ages 5, 3 and 1, wake up. Then she feeds and dresses them and drives the oldest, Beckett, to school.
She answers email or takes calls while working out on her exercise bike at home, then heads for the office. She leaves at midafternoon to pick up her son, reading email, engine off, while waiting in the carpool line. She and Michael have dinner with the children, and get more work done after the children are in bed. Some priorities get lost, Ms. Ashy admits: The uninterrupted exercise sessions she once enjoyed have dwindled to as little as 5 minutes a day. But, she says, “I’m very, very Type A,” and integrating work and home enables her to be as productive as possible.
Other people’s style is the opposite: As separators, they prefer a clear line between work and personal life. These people want to focus on work when they’re at the office and on personal life when they’re home. For them, the act of shifting gears saps energy they prefer to devote to relationships, family responsibilities or other pursuits. Some use different cellphones for work and home, to help set boundaries, according to a 2015 study of 285 employees by British researchers. Others keep separate calendars or set “out-of-office” auto-replies on their email after leaving work.
Working together can be challenging for integrators and separators. “Some see integrators as unprofessional, because they might be talking to the vet from their office phone,” says Dr. Kossek. “And integrators get angry at separators who seem selfish: ‘I’m working on Saturday, why aren’t you?’ ”
Steve Connelly sometimes has to explain his style to clients. The father of three heads a Boston ad agency, Connelly Partners, and coaches a competitive high-school basketball team.
He sometimes leaves work at 3 p.m. for practices or takes work calls from the gym, and continues to work until 9:30 p.m. or later to get everything done.
Mr. Connelly once held a 45-minute teleconference with three clients on his cellphone between games at a tournament, sharing documents on a laptop. Often, “the first 10 minutes of the conversation with the client is spent explaining to them where I am,” he says. He tells clients that integrating work with a rich personal life makes him a better business partner.
Integrators typically welcome flexible scheduling; Mr. Connelly is baffled by people who complain about being tethered to the office by email or cellphones, when he finds them so empowering.
Separators, however, say they need clearer boundaries on the workday and more explicit guidance about what is expected of them, says a 2014 study of 1,238 employees by researchers at Stockholm University in Sweden.
Others, called cyclers in a 2015 study by Dr. Kossek, volley back and forth between integrating and separating work and home for a few days, weeks or months at a time.
Allyson Downey of Boulder, Colo., spent several weeks last year integrating work and home—running her business, weeSpring, a platform for parents to share advice about baby products, while being “very present and hands-on” with her two children, Logan, 4 and Caroline, 1. She drove them to school and socialized with neighbors. Playing Legos with them at home, she sometimes put her phone in a drawer to avoid “that twitchy feeling” triggered by an incoming business call, she says.
A few months later, she shifted to separating work from home for six weeks, working in her office until midnight to meet a book deadline while her husband and their au pair cared for the children. “A lot of times, I need to be laser-focused on what I’m doing,” she says. “Other times, I’m able to move seamlessly back and forth.”
Your boundary style also may depend on the kind of job you choose. For some people, work and home are so inseparable that Dr. Kossek calls them “fusion lovers.” Lisa Chapin of San Francisco loves sailing so much that her personal and professional lives are barely distinguishable. She left a career as a real-estate agent to buy SailTime, a boat-membership franchise. She encounters customers at social outings. She keeps information on clients’ boats in her phone and answers their texts when she’s boating.
The downside: It is sometimes hard for Ms. Chapin to relax when dining out with her husband, because clients are always nearby. She doesn’t let evenings with clients go too late. “I’m an extrovert, but I have limits,” she says.
People’s boundary-management styles sometimes change with a new life stage. People in their 20s are often comfortable integrating work and personal life, then switch to greater separation when they find a spouse or partner or have children, says Cali Yost, a consultant and author of “Tweak It,” a book on managing work and life.
Your style is only satisfying if you feel you have control over where, when and how your work is done, Dr. Kossek found in a 2012 study of 591 managers. Those who had to allow more interruptions than they wanted, either on the job or at home, were more stressed and frustrated than those who had control. Dr. Kossek has another term—“job warriors”—for those who are forced to volley back and forth between work and home, such as people who must travel heavily for business and dislike it.
Also, some people would like to reduce their hours at the office but find it hard to integrate work with home life because they face too many distractions or lack a quiet work space.
Separators may have a hard time in a high-tech workplace where colleagues are connected 24/7 on email or their phones, carving out uninterrupted time for either work or home. Ms. Yost advises making small changes in your daily routine, such as turning off your phone for an hour during dinner or leaving work a half-hour early to attend your child’s soccer game—and staying off the phone while you’re there. “If you do those things consistently, all of a sudden you’re finding your place that makes you feel your best,” she says.
Jake Knapp of San Francisco took steps to separate work and home after his older son was born. He was spending a lot of time in meetings, he says, and every day, “I noticed I was missing a day in his life. You don’t get that time back.”
In an effort to be more efficient, he studied how problems are solved and developed a focused, one-week team problem-solving process to cut down on distractions and speed decision-making, says Mr. Knapp, author of a new book on the process, “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.”
He also reduced distractions at home. “I work with tech companies all the time, but I’m very low-tech at home,” says Mr. Knapp, a design partner with Google Ventures. He installed a vacation timer on his home Internet, turning it off every evening. He has removed the Internet and email from his phone, and the family doesn’t own a TV. All this clears up time for playing with his two sons, Luke, 12, and Flynn, 5, after dinner.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org