If there’s one truism about technology, it’s that it always evolves faster than policy. Case in point: the smartphone and the obligation to answer work email after we leave the office. According to SHRM, 80 per cent of companies have no formal policy in place. That means only 20 per cent of organizations have addressed concerns like: Should I respond to a text my boss sends me at 9:30 pm? What if I don’t, and he or she retaliates? What if I don’t, and other workers get ahead? If I’m a non-exempt employee, am I going to be paid overtime for these little interruptions? Do I have to?!
So until more employee handbooks contain specifics, I believe we’re going to see lawsuits popping up like dandelions. So far, there’s at least one, filed by a Chicago police sergeant who believes he and his fellow officers should be compensated for checking email outside of work hours. A few countries in Europe have already confronted the sensitive issue of protecting time-off through official policies. This spring, though, there was a rumor going around that France had enacted a law banning all work email sent past 6 pm. In fact, it was a contract that only applied to two sets of unionized employees after they’d worked 13 hours. In Germany, however, it’s now against the law for managers to contact employees outside of work hours for anything but emergencies. Apparently, the government adopted this rule after observing how Volkswagen handled the issue – by setting up a technological blockade (their servers “hold” emails sent thirty minutes before or after a worker’s shift).
In order to wash their hands of the idea of choice, workers insert a little tiny word: “access.”
But Americans are making it up as we go along. Most of us default to being “always on” and “plugged in” because we believe it is viewed more favorably by management. It’s safer. (It must be, right?)
In this kind of workplace environment, if you truly want to unplug when you leave for Hawaii or Machu Picchu, you must convince your clients and colleagues that answering email or texts or voicemails while on vacation is physically or technologically impossible.
How does an employee do this without sounding ridiculous? They use the word “access.”
In order to wash their hands of the idea of choice, workers insert a little tiny word into their out-of-office emails: “access.” Limited access, very little access, no access, intermittent access, unreliable access. What I’ve noticed from my own experience reading OOO emails is that employees hide behind the vagueness of this word. Because in today’s hyperconnected world, what does “no access” mean? No access to work email, because work email lives on a work computer? I’m skeptical of that claim, because in my experience I can always access Outlook online. No internet access? Not likely, unless you’re staying put in a remote area for the entirety of your vacation. No mobile device? Also unlikely, seeing as two-thirds of us now have smartphones, some of which are sanctioned by work through BYOD programs.
What I suspect it actually means is that you will not be checking email very often… you just don’t want to say it outright because it would uncover the difficult truth: that it’s a choice. Instead, we hide behind this wonderfully vague term.
I wonder how long we will have to continue to hide behind this OOO language. When will more of us simply write, “I will not be checking email?” It’s going to sound bold, but it’s also going to be honest. Let’s admit that being tethered to one’s email while on vacation does not amount to much of a vacation – and let’s hope that employees don’t get “extra credit” for doing so.