Consider the possible emotional response first, says management scholar Bill Becker.
by Caroline Collier '98 Photo by Carolyn Cruz
Bill Becker invited all Neeley School of Business graduates to participate in his research study.
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by Caroline Collier '98
Photo by Carolyn Cruz
When William Becker saw his wife fume about a 5 a.m. email from her boss demanding immediate extra work, he imagined a new scholarly study.
“In general, my research is moving towards specific emotions that we feel, and how they influence us in the workplace,” said Becker, assistant professor of management, entrepreneurship and leadership.
In the private display of anger at that early-morning email, Becker found a prime illustration of how communication in non-work hours can cause a maelstrom of feelings. His spouse’s boss “was just sending emails at all hours of the night and morning, which was interesting for me,” he said. “Because I actually got to see her when she would get one of these emails.”
“You really have to know your employees pretty well before you start sending out emails”Bill Becker
While there are several business studies about the proliferation of communication outside of normal work hours, few of them also analyze the feelings those messages evoke, said Becker. “If you aren’t including emotions, you’re kind of missing what’s going on.”
Becker designed the study with two research partners — Marcus Butts, associate professor of management at the University of Texas at Arlington and Wendy Boswell, professor of management at Texas A&M University. Initially the three researchers surveyed friends and professional acquaintances for their study.
Those study participants answered questions about workplace relationships and job expectations and agreed to report back when they received an after-hours work email for the next five days. The idea was to capture feelings as they arose, said Becker. “What’s cool about emotions is they come on so strong and have an immediate effect, and later on, maybe we don’t quite remember how angry we were.”
Seeking more participants for the study, Becker invited Neeley School of Business graduates to contribute. Several hundred signed up within a week. With a diversified participant pool, the researchers controlled for age, gender, marital status and company size, but study results showed that none of those parameters made a significant impact.
“What’s cool about emotions is they come on so strong and have an immediate effect, and later on, maybe we don’t quite remember how angry we were.”Bill Becker
The research showed two factors were more important: length of the message and the employee’s attitude about segmentation (the perception of the divide between work and nonwork time). But factors exerting the most influence over emotional response were the tone of the email and the nature of the relationship with the email-happy boss or co-worker.
“When there was an antagonistic relationship with your supervisor, even kind of neutral emails caused a lot of anger,” said Becker. “Because you’re getting it after-hours, now you’re injecting your relationship with that person into it.”
Though Becker expected a preponderance of negativity and complaints about communication in nonwork times, the research showed a fair balance between positive and negative emotional reactions — more evidence that emotions are often misunderstood.
The professor said heeding feelings and monitoring tone of communication aren’t perfunctory aspects of business school pedagogy. In his MBA classes, students keep journals to better examine the emotional dimensions of their interactions.
Becker wants future managers to pay attention to their employees’ inner worlds, especially when communicating after the workday is over. “You really have to know your employees pretty well before you start sending out emails,” said the professor. “Really think about how is this person going to react.”
Given the exponential increase of technological communication and continual redefinition of work-life balance, he said, “those interpersonal skills are more important than ever.”
Your comments are welcome
This is an important and timely article for employers. I counsel management regarding employment law matters, and in that capacity I see a growing number of employers discouraging or prohibiting off duty email and text communications, to the extent feasible. Not only is there a negative emotional aspect as Dr. Becker notes, but there is also a compensability issue. When a manager emails or texts an hourly or otherwise non-exempt employee, that employee is potentially being placed back on the clock. Failing to compensate non-exempt employees for off-duty communications creates the potential for liability for unpaid wages, which can cause, contribute to, or compound the negative emotions or resentment an employee may feel with each incoming message.
I’m not an MBA, but have had my world inundated with business related emails over the past two years.
Employers can get away with using emails to basically spam, brainwash, manipulate and conquer underlings, customers and clients. It’s also an effective way of “getting the last word”…always having something to say, define, repositio, instruct or critique.
In my opinion, sending business emails after hours is a major no-no unless it has been understood and agreed too in the very beginning of the business relationship or strictly in case of an emergency to circumvent inconvenience to the receiver.
People with no life, overachievers and workaholics passively forcing others to stay on board with work related matters by intruding into their private live’s, taking up their time for business matters that can truly wait, is disrespectful and presumptuous. A great many bosses are disorganized and self serving, having no qualms sending emails at all hours, leaving the recipient to interpret what level of urgency may be implied if they genuinely know the routine expectations of the sender.
As a rule of thumb, don’t do it. Basically, your bothering people when they are not expecting to be working. It’s bad manners and poor form.
However, not every after hours email needs after hours response. If I send an after hours email to my staff or to my boss, it’s because I am working after hours, and that email is a part of my work. I do not expect a response during nonbusiness hours–at all. But being understaffed, my workload simply doesn’t fit into the 8:00-4:00 schedule that my colleagues and staff keep. I use email when I work, occasionally check it when I’m not working, but really have no expectation that my staff does.
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