What to do about your after-hours work email

How to draw a line between work and personal time.
By Eddie Huffman

You just sat down for dinner and your phone alerts you to a new work email. Can it wait until you're back behind your desk tomorrow, or do you need to answer it right away? Can you relax and enjoy the rest of your evening, or should you jump back into work mode to keep your boss or a client happy?

It depends, according to experts in business etiquette. We asked two of them to weigh in with advice on what to do about after-hours work email.

Most people don't expect an immediate response to every email, according to Rachel Wagner, founder and president of Rachel Wagner Etiquette and Protocol in Tulsa, Okla. The general expectation with business emails is that the recipient will respond by the end of the business day, if possible, or within 24 hours otherwise, she said.

It's important to work with your boss or team to make sure everyone is on the same page, Wagner said: "In your particular group, team, or department, are you expected to respond to work emails after regular work hours? What about weekends and holidays? Sit down first and talk about that."

Some emails merit a courteous response after hours, she said. For example, you might receive an important, time-sensitive document.

"You can send something out like, 'Dear Bill: This email is to acknowledge I received the audit report on ABC Company, and will be looking at it first thing in the morning,'" Wagner said. "You're not getting in a lengthy email discussion. It just reassures them when they send something very important."

Other options

Setting an out-of-office message lets people know not to expect a rapid response from you, said Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

But sometimes it's easier to respond to an email immediately while it's fresh on your mind and avoid dwelling on it, Wagner said. To avoid an expectation of immediate replies, schedule such emails for delivery the next morning.

"It lets you have your evening," Wagner said. "It doesn't give the sender the idea that you're on call all the time."

Scheduling for later delivery can also be useful for sending a reminder when you don't need or expect a reply until the following day, Gottsman said. She recommends sending yourself an email or creating some other kind of reminder instead of intruding on a co-worker's personal time. After-hours emails can create psychological pressure on recipients to process work issues during personal time even if they understand that the matter is not urgent, she said.

Don't let after-hours emails prevent you from having a personal life, Gottsman said. Everyone needs down time to recharge, enjoy family and friends, and take care of personal business. You can't give those things the attention they deserve if you're constantly answering work email away from the office, she said.

So enjoy your dinner. Most work emails can wait.

Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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