It's 10 P.M., Do You Know Where Your Employees Are? 4 Steps To Set After-Hours Work Expectations

The other day I sat with three senior leaders from three different industries. One was the CEO of an international PR and communications firm. One was a partner of a professional services firm, and the other the president of a national not-for-profit. As it often does, our discussion about work and life turned to technology. I asked them how they used their smartphones and laptops to stay connected to work after traditional business hours:

"I keep my phone on 24/7, but I don’t respond to everything, all the time."—CEO of the PR and communications firm.

"I sometimes send emails at 4 a.m., and on the weekends just to get a jump-start on my day and week."—president of the national not-for-profit.

"My phone goes in my briefcase when I get home and I don’t look at it again until the next morning."—partner of a professional services firm.

Three leaders, with three very different uses of technology. So I asked them, "How many of you have sat down with all of your direct reports and explained how you prefer to connect with work, and specified what you expect of them?"

All three shook their heads and said some variation of the following statement, "No, I haven’t done that, but they all know that I don’t expect them to do what I do." My response was, "I’ll bet that isn’t true," and I shared what I see too often in many organizations:

Leaders fail to clarify their personal preferences for staying connected to work with technology, and don’t share their expectations of the responsiveness with their direct reports. This leads to misguided assumptions that can wreak havoc on the work/life balance of their employees. And most leaders have no idea any of this is happening.

Here’s my advice:

Recognize that you have to initiate the conversation with your direct reports. They won’t because they don’t want you to misinterpret their questions as, "I don’t want to work hard." For example, I worked with a senior leader who always caught the 5:00 a.m. bus to the office. On his ride, he did all of his emails and was so pleased that his team were "morning people, too—they get right back to me!" Imagine his surprise when I told him, "Actually, many are setting alarms for 5 a.m. to be awake and reply to you." "What?!" he responded, "Why didn’t they say anything?" To the person, they all told me they were afraid he would question their commitment if they did.

Decide what you really expect in terms of response and connection. Part of the problem is that leaders are so busy using technology to manage their own work/life balance that they haven’t thought about what they actually expect from their team. The leader who emailed from the bus at 5:00 a.m. told everyone that if he really needed them he’d call their mobile phones. If an email was priority, he’d identify it. Otherwise feel free to respond whenever they can.

Have a meeting, state the parameters clearly, and then be consistent. People watch the behavior of leaders like a hawk. If there’s even a whiff of inconsistency between what you told them and how you actually behave, they will go back to assuming they need to follow your technology schedule. So if you state, "You don’t need to respond to emails at night, I’ll call you if anything is urgent," don’t penalize someone who missed an important issue because they didn’t answer an email, but were never called.

Finally, keep the lines of communication open and encourage ongoing clarification. Assumptions people make about their manager’s expectations are rarely accurate, especially when it comes to connection and access to work via technology. Set the record straight. It’s an easy way to offer your people more control and consistency over the way work fits into their lives—something we all need.

If you’re a manager, have you clarified your expectations of access and connectedness with your direct reports? If you haven’t, why not? If you did, what did you learn? What difference did it make?

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO, LLP, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Novo Nordisk. Yost is the author of "Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You" (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005). Connect with Cali at the award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost

[Image: Flickr user Amir Jina]

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  • Dr. Joseph Harder

    Thanks for this.  I'm teaching in a leadership development program this week on Generations at Work and Work-Life Balance, and this is relevant to both.

    The point about direct reports setting alarms to respond to a boss's emails was the one that hit me.

  • Cali Williams Yost

    Great comments, everyone!
    The conversation is even more important with non-exempt employees to ensure they aren't assuming they have to work outside of the regular hours, or you do risk creating a liability of unpaid compensation for the company.
    The goal of having these conversations is that it uncouples self-initiative (which is great) from inaccurate assumptions of manager expectations that drive involuntary behaviors. 
    That is why I LOVE Great Places to Work!
    The problem was he never stated that expected his team to be awake and responding to work email at 5 a.m. His team incorrectly assumed that's what he expected and behaved accordingly, which was not the case. 
    In addition to the good advice and have given you, one way to make the case to your company for a separate smart phone is security and the risk to them of having you mix work and personal information. 

  • briteblonde1

    Anybody reading this with a law background? Can companies actually articulate expected overtime without a compensation issue? 

  • Brennan Dell

    Agree with the previous posts about accessibility and 24/7 access. Why haven't companies figured out that the $50-100/month to either pay for employee cell phones or service level bumps would pay for itself with additional productivity and responsiveness? (likely within a week!)

    The greater issue may be empowering employees enough to drive their own initiatives that they feel self- motivated and inspired to be online at 10pm?

  • Leslie Caccamese

    I really like Cali's article. While organization's may have great programs and practices in place to try and create great workplaces, it is more often one's manager who actually determines how an employee experiences their work. While passionate, engaged employees may not gripe about working outside of standard business hours, their experience of the workplace is negatively impacted when expectations are not clear! When measuring employee perceptions, we at Great Place to Work ask employees to rate the statement "Managers make their expectations clear." I would love to see more leaders addressing issues like this directly.

  • Kama

    I think it's worth asking: why do we even consider it reasonable that any leader could state that he/she expects employees to be on their work e-mail at 5 am? In very rare situations I can understand it, but for the day-in-day-out? That's just an unreasonable expectation.

  • Ashley

    I would like to hear about the rules that apply to using your personal devices (phone, ipad, laptop) for work? I am finding that it is expected for me to receive calls and text as well as link my work email to my personal cell phone so I can be contacted 24/7? This creates a situation where I am paying for my cell phone, data plan or internet as a requirement for work.

    Any help?

  • Geoffrey Kemp

    Ashley, if you are an hourly employee that is required to respond to emails and phone calls off hours, you may be due compensation for your time as well.  If you do it on your own time (not required) then the same rules do not apply.

  • Jensen_G

    If you are expected to use your personal phone for work purposes you absolutely should be reimbursed, at a very minimum for a bump up to the "next level" on any voice/txt/data that you are expected to use. It's entirely reasonable for you decline to use your personal cell for work purposes if they are not going to pay for your additional use. At our cash-strapped workplace the policy is that the company will pay for the employee to bump up to the next level voice plan so that the employee is ensured that they will not go over their minutes. Other employers are likely more generous than that, but that should be the minimum.