If you were a manager 30 years ago, you would never ever think of calling an employee about a work issue on the telephone at night. In fact, in all of my working life, I can’t remember ever getting a phone call from a co-worker about work, in the evening. It was one of the unwritten rules that you just didn’t call someone at night at home about a work issue unless it was a dire emergency. Proper work etiquette called for you to wait until the morning to talk to someone about the issue. Now there were a number of reasons for this. First, it was unlikely that anything work related would arise in the evening in any case unless you were in a 24 hour manufacturing environment. With nothing happening at work, there was usually no need to call someone. Secondly, it was just rude to call someone at home when the issue could easily be resolved first thing in the morning. With slower cycle times, waiting a few hours to get something solved was not a big issue.

While we would probably be hesitant to telephone someone at home today about a work issue, that inhibition to contact someone does not extend to email. For some reason, the very same people who would not think it appropriate to phone someone in the evening or on weekends would think it perfectly acceptable to email them at any time of the day or night. In a conversation with a friend of mine recently, he relayed a story about sending an email on the weekend. Being from the old school, he does not typically send emails on the weekend but he thought of something and sent a quick message, intending the recipient to see it and deal with it on Monday morning. He was shocked and dismayed to see a response to that email within half an hour on a Sunday. Owning a company and being a firm believer in the social contract between an employer and employee he felt guilty about impinging on his employee’s time in this way. Unfortunately, there are very few people left who follow this old social contract and who do not contact co-workers late at night and on the weekend.

It may be the indirect nature of email that allows people to think that they are not bothering someone when they send an email at 10:00 pm. After all it is up to the recipient whether or not they wish to answer. In this way, it is the fault of the recipient if they answer and there has been no breakage of the social contract. Unfortunately this doesn’t work as it is human nature to keep on the boss’s good side. Knowing that your boss sends email at late hours is enough for people to keep tuned in to email just in case there is something form the boss. Since everyone wants to look good in their boss’s eye then answering that email immediately makes someone look good and we then have a new culture of endless email.