Why mobile email bans won't solve work-life balance problems

Mobile devices make it hard to find the right work-life balance. Banning after-hours email, as some French industries have done, isn't a smart fix.

Smartphones and tablets make it easy -- too easy -- to stay connected to our jobs 24/7. It's not good for us, and the backlash has begun.

Mobility is an obvious boon for employers and employees alike. Employers like that mobile workers can be just as productive (if not more so) when they're out of the office. With the increased flexibility that comes when employees aren't tethered to their desks, they're happier, too.

But constant connectivity also brings work-life balance problems. When you're always just a touchscreen away from your boss, colleagues and clients, it's tough to feel like you're ever really off the clock -- resulting in stress and burnout.

"That's a detriment to the employer and the employee," said Rose Stanley, work/life practice director at WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources organization in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A new plan in France tackles this problem head-on by banning employees in certain industries from checking work email after hours. The agreement, signed by labor unions and employers' representatives in the technology and consulting sectors, says workers have a duty to stay off email outside of regular business hours. It also prohibits managers from pressuring their staffs to stay connected.

An after-hours mobile email ban would likely be welcome news for many workers here in the United States, and employers too. As one boss who sends emails in the middle of the night told The Boston Globe this week, "It's not good. I'm broadcasting that I don't have good boundaries. I'm setting unfair expectations for a nonprofit where the salaries aren't high. I'm modeling bad behavior."

But a widespread ban probably isn't realistic in the global economy, where business never stops and companies have employees, customers and partners scattered across multiple time zones. It also doesn't consider that some people do their best work outside of traditional business hours.

How to solve work-life balance problems

Employers agree on the benefits of flexible work styles for employees. An overwhelming majority said they have positive or extremely positive effects on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement, according to a 2013 WorldatWork survey.

The results were murkier when it came to the effects on productivity; more than half of employers said it's hard to tell how much work employees get done when they're out of the office. Thirty-six percent said telecommuters are just as productive as in-office workers, but only 8% said telecommuters are more productive.

It's important to note that having a "flexible" work style doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any boundaries between our work and personal lives. When employees and employers fail to make this distinction, that's when issues pop up. Stressed and burnt-out employees have higher rates of absenteeism and may even suffer health problems, which can in turn lead to increased healthcare costs, Stanley said.

Companies should focus less on mandating work/life balance and more on making it the accepted norm, Stanley said. Instead of writing a heavy-handed rule against after-hours email, for example, include language about respecting and valuing employees' free time in the company's mission statement.

"You don't always want to make it a policy," Stanley said. "You want to make it a culture."

This was last published in April 2014

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How has mobility affected your work-life balance?
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While being connected all the time does make it difficult to step away from work completely, it also has created more flexibility. I don't feel like I'm missing something if I'm not tied down to my desk for certain hours per day. Mobility affords me the freedom to create my own schedule (to a point) and know that I will have access to the tools I need to get work done. I think that mobility helps companies to treat employees more like adults who are capable of managing their own time (even if I sometimes would like to go completely off the grid).
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It is definitely a trade-off. Being able to run an errand or go to the gym between the hours of 9 and 5 is great. Your phone buzzing with email notifications late at night, not so great.
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I have felt the freedom of mobile technologies more than the after-hours tether. Especially with better relevant features such as Do not Disturb and VIP lists, mobility frees me up to take my time as my own when alerts aren't coming through. I've found that when a team member sends messages or schedules calls at all hours, he or she would find some other way to draw you in outside of work if mobile devices weren't in the picture. 
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I think one big way that mobility has affected work/life balance is that it continues to put increasing responsibility on us to manage that balance. It’s not just that we are now more connected to work. It’s also that we use our mobile devices for both work and life, which means that there is a greater possibility to drawn into one by when using your device for the other.
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Positive: it gives us any time and everywhere ability to access and respond. Negative: there comes an increased expectation that you will be available and respond. To that end, I make a point to establish boundaries and I try my level best to stay within them. While I can work from home pretty much any time I want to, I generally keep "office hours" that I publish and broadcast. Slack is our primary tool for inter-personal communication, and I make it a point to say when I'm heads down, when I'm available, and when I will be dropping off for the rest of the day. That saves a lot of conflict, and it sets the boundaries I want to set, mostly for myself so I can apply a little self-discipline to my schedule. When you are just on and available at any time, it can help foster a sense of laziness in that "oh it's cool, I can deal with that later tonight if I want to".
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When used in a smart way it improves efficiency and productivity. But there are too many seductive distractions. I'm struggling to teach my son that kind of self-control, especially with all the other careless teenagers around.
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My initial thought upon hearing about that French email ban was that it would've worked as a great line in that annoying Cadillac 'Work Hard' commercial (n'est-ce pas?). Culture-wise, it doesn’t seem like something that could happen here, and kind of misses the point to an extent. I think we have to be able to set our own boundaries and communicate openly about expectations and what’s sustainable given various work and life commitments.
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Technology is an amplifier. In the company abusing work/life balance after hours email makes it worse. In the company embracing work/life balance mobile devices allow for mobility and flexibility. It's a job culture problem, not technology problem.
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