The problem with telling employees you “don’t expect a response” after-hours

by | Dec 11, 2019 | Work-Life Balance

“If I send an email to my employees after 9pm, I don’t expect them to look at it.”

This is an attitude about after-hours messaging we often see in articles, at conferences, and hear directly from our users (often in response to opportunistic feedback sent by Cultivate).

In today’s workplace, there are many good reasons why a people leader might feel the need to send an after-hours message sometimes.

Distributed teams and heavy travel schedules can create the need for cross-timezone collaboration. Employees whose personal lives might not support the traditional 9am-5pm work schedule – most obviously parents – might optimize their own work-life integration by catching up on a Sunday or later in the evening. Some of us might simply be workaholics or overloaded at work (we won’t say this is a good reason, but we’re not here to judge).

Regardless of the reason, research shows that a boss’s after-hours messaging behavior affects the behavior of his team. Even if managers might not expect a response, sending an after-hours email or Slack creates “a near guarantee that their direct reports will feel compelled to read and respond to them.”

Clearly communicating norms and expectations around after-hours messaging can mitigate this effect – saying, “I don’t expect you to respond to my after-hours messages” – but it won’t stop employees’ phones from buzzing at 11pm.

Is it realistic to expect that employees, especially millennials who say their phone never leaves their side, to “avoid looking at their phone” on the weekend or after-hours? And that managers, in a workplace that is both increasingly digital and also untethered from physical spaces, can avoid sending an after-hours email from time-to-time?

Why do we think the solution to after-hours messages is reversing people’s behavior to look at their phones?  Do we really think we can change that? Our workplace relationships are as real-time as our text-based personal relationships.  That is a function of technology and the way we communicate.

Change the Environment

Workplace “norms” will not change our synchronous communication culture.  This will continue to evolve via macro-forces of consumer communication behavior, and the workplace will simply follow.

What if we framed the problem in a different way? Instead of asking humans to ignore their environment of synchronous digital communication with education, what if we changed the environment?

Imagine someone suffering from an addiction to potato chips. They know chips are bad, yet saying “just don’t eat potato chips because they are bad for you” – while keeping the cabinet perpetually stocked with potato chips – is an ineffective strategy for most. This is an environment where they are setup to fail! A better behavior change solution would be setting more sensible defaults (stocking up on baby carrots instead of chips), and making the unhealthy option only accessible through active choice (having to go to the store to buy potato chips).

A Technology Solution

At Cultivate, we have developed a feature that allows users to create default message times for their direct reports, and then Cultivate will, by default, not deliver messages outside of those times.  So, for myself, I can work hard on a quiet Sunday and send tons of messages and clear my inbox (and feel really happy about that!), and Cultivate will deliver those messages to my team on Monday when I know they get into work.  Occasionally I need to send a message that people see on Sunday, and that just takes a couple extra clicks when I am sending a message. Which is fine, since it is not the norm (we interviewed managers and they estimated that only 5-10% of messages they send after-hours actually need to be immediately answered).

I can clear my inbox and work when I want to, and my employees don’t get messages from me after-hours that are not absolutely critical. We are improving the wellbeing of all Cultivate employees without having to say, “just don’t look at my emails after-hours.”  My employees don’t get pings, or dings, or red dots on their phone that their brain forces them to look at. We have taken the potato chips out of the cabinet.

And what are our internal results at Cultivate using this feature? We have reduced after-hours messages by 90%.  Not by having seminars, meetings, or establishing new work-life balance values. We just clicked a button to help us change our environment.

My hope is that we (in HR Tech / the Well-being space) build more solutions like the one I described above, and lessen our reliance upon standalone education and norm setting.  Let’s together use smart technology to change our workplace environment and create an intelligent enterprise.


Cultivate is a digital leadership platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide in-the-moment feedback and management coaching to enterprise leaders. Beyond helping managers become more self-aware, the platform also offers nudges and tools to put that feedback into action.

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