Out of office, out of mind?

Last week’s remarks by Professor Sir Cary Cooper at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference re-ignited debate about the impact on our lives of work-related emails and other forms of contact outside office hours, and whether employers should choose (or be compelled) to impose limits on such forms of contact.  This issue hit the news last year when the German Labour Minister announced plans to restrict out of hours contact in her own Ministry.  At the time I pointed out that blanket restrictions on out of office contact are probably impractical and may not be welcomed by employees in any case.

We now, however, have some data about the extent of out of office contact in the UK thanks to my colleague Ksenia Zheltoukhova, who included a couple of questions on the topic in a survey of employees that formed part of a study of organisational agility published last year.

Data were collected from just over 1,000 employees and all the results reported here are weighted to be representative of UK employees as a whole in organisations with 2 or more employees.  The precise questions asked (and the responses that employees could choose from) are reported in the table below along with the results for employees as a whole.

Q: Are you normally contactable outside of your regular working hours (e.g. on the phone, on email, through work-related social media)?

If yes, Q: What is the main reason you are contactable outside of your regular working hours?

Yes, take phone calls or respond to emails/messages

48%

Required formally, as part of my job (e.g. on call)

10%

Yes, read emails/messages but do not respond

11%

Expected informally, due to the nature of my job (e.g. client work)

28%

No

41%

Feel pressure to be contactable, as my boss/team members are

11%

 

I feel anxious to miss something important if I don't stay contactable

8%

I choose to be contactable

38%

Other

4%

Don't know

2%

Almost half of all employees say they will take calls or respond to emails or messages outside working hours with another tenth identifying as ‘passive’ recipients who keep in touch with work-related communications but don’t reply outside work hours.

Of course, we don’t know what counts as ‘normal’.  Research suggests that people create rules or boundaries that define when they do and don’t check emails or respond to calls.  It might, for example, generally be frowned upon to take a work call during a wedding – especially if you are one of the people being married – but the extent to which other social occasions can be disrupted will no doubt depend on a host of factors.  We do know that boundaries vary as documented in this wonderfully named paper or indeed in this no doubt highly scientific survey.  Nor do we know from these data how often people are contacted out of hours or feel compelled to respond out of hours.  People could say they normally are contactable even if contact is rare.

Of the three fifths of employees who say they are contactable in some way, roughly similar proportions say it is required of them and that it is their own choice.  In the middle, we have almost a fifth of this group who say they feel pressure to be contactable because other people are contactable or because they are anxious they might miss something.  This group is over-represented in the group that monitor emails but doesn’t respond and, as we shall see, there are indications that out of hours contact may be more problematical for this group than for those who say it goes with the job or that it is their free choice.  For simplicity, the analysis below combines the ‘required formally’ and ‘expected informally’ categories into a single ‘expected’ category and combines the ‘feel pressure to be contactable’ and ‘feel anxious’ categories into a single ‘mixed feelings’ category.

The data suggest that whether we are contactable (and why) varies according to who we are, the job we do and the organisation that employs us.  The chart below shows the percentage of employees who are fully contactable (by reason) together with the percentage who monitor but do not respond to emails (‘passive’, coloured grey in the chart).


 
Although men are more likely to be contactable than women, the differences by age and gender aren’t especially great.  Those running organisations or in senior management positions are most likely to be contactable and to regard it as part of the job.  However, if you add in ‘passive’ monitoring of email, nearly as high a proportion of middle managers are contactable and a higher proportion are in the ‘mixed feelings’ category.  Particularly high proportions of senior and middle managers say they feel they have to be contactable because others around them are.

The proportion of employees who respond to calls and emails varies from 25% in manufacturing to 59% in computers and hospitality.  Clearly the nature of the work and the structure of the industry makes a difference. This is easy to see for the computer industry which is clearly suited to ‘Martini’ working (‘any time, any place, anywhere’) but less so for hospitality.  However, hospitality is an industry with variable labour requirements as seen in its high use of zero hours contracts.  Out of hours contact may be to see whether someone wants an extra shift – or to stand them down because it’s raining and no-one’s coming to the outdoor BBQ.

The chart below shows there is also an association between how an employee thinks they are treated by their employer and how they regard out of hours contact.


Employees with a positive view of their employer are more likely to be contactable and, in particular, to say it is their choice rather than a requirement or the result of anxiety or pressure.  Other similar questions – not reported here – show the same pattern.  Being (willingly) contactable out of office hours can be seen as a form of discretionary effort or ‘going the extra mile’: an outcome of mutually beneficial, high trust relationships based on reciprocity.

Individual preferences also make a difference.  Employees were asked whether they preferred a clear boundary between work and home life or taking work home (there’s an implicit presumption here that ‘taking work home’ benefits the employee either through less time spent at work or some other form of reward).  Among those preferring a clear boundary (86% of employees), 44% are fully contactable whereas the proportion is 72% among those who prefer to take work home.

The table below shows the relationship between out of office contact and job satisfaction and (self-assessed) employee performance.

 

Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied would you say you are with your current job? (%)

Employee performance*
(scale 0 to 10)

 

Very satisfied/

satisfied

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied

Dissatisfied/

Very dissatisfied

Mean score

Not contactable

37

50

48

7.59

Passive

11

10

10

7.68

Expected

21

20

16

7.78

Mixed feelings

7

7

9

7.42

Choice

21

10

11

7.84

 * Measured using the following question: “On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents a working week when you give your best and deliver at the maximum of your ability, how would you score the last full working week you had?”

People who are satisfied with their job are more likely to say they are contactable out of choice than people in the neutral or dissatisfied groups.  Those who are contactable out of choice or because it is a requirement have the highest mean employee performance ratings.  Note that those who are contactable but have mixed feelings about it have a lower mean performance rating than employees who are not contactable at all.  These data cannot tell us exactly how these relationships work (assuming there is a relationship and it is not pure chance).  It is plausible to think that employees who are satisfied with their jobs and put high levels of effort into them will be more likely to (willingly) be contactable out of hours.  It is also plausible to think that being (unwillingly) contactable as a result of anxiety or peer pressure has a particularly negative effect on job satisfaction and effort levels – at least employees know where they are when they are expected to be contactable.

Cary Cooper’s remarks touched on the impact of email on productivity.  Our data doesn’t allow us to say much about this.  It is undoubtedly the case that ICT has led to great improvements over time in the productivity of office-based work (I’ll come back to this in a future blog).  But that doesn’t mean that how we currently use technology for work purposes optimises our productivity.

Employees may well be able to increase their productivity through changes in the way they use existing technology.  Some of these can be quite subtle.  If you’re someone who feels a Pavlovian desire to check your emails every time you hear a ping, turning off notifications may help you focus.  Organisations may be able to increase productivity through their choice of technology platforms and by establishing norms for behaviour that complement the nature of the business and the organisation’s culture.

It’s unlikely that email logjam is one of the main reasons why output per hour worked in the UK is still some 2% lower than it was in the first quarter of 2008.  For this to be so, we’d need evidence that, compared to other countries, UK employees are either particularly prolific with their emails or particularly bad at managing them (and have got ever more prolific or ever worse at managing them over time).  I haven’t seen any evidence on this point although I’m sure that some very smart data science people in the big tech companies have looked into both these questions.

Even though the inferences we can draw from these survey questions are limited, they do show that out of hours contact is a potentially significant issue.  The data suggest it is not necessarily a bad thing.  It should come as no surprise but it cannot be looked at in isolation from the employment relationship as a whole.  I suspect this is an issue where legislation of any kind is unlikely to be effective or beneficial.  Nor are organisations likely to find blanket rules or restrictions the best way forwards.  But that doesn’t mean that leaving it entirely to individuals and teams is necessarily the best approach either, especially if it creates uncertainty and anxiety. 

Employers need to initiate structured conversations in the workplace about this topic (but not by email).

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