There is little doubting that smart phones were the "game-changer" when it comes to email - once your work emails were on the phone there was no getting away from them . . . or indeed from work. For those of us who are technically minded achieving a work-life balance took on a new dimension.
Work emails coming through 'out of hours' have an ability to pull you instantly away from your family, friends and relaxation, back to the office. The arrival of a work email in your inbox can ruin an evening or weekend. They put the ball back in your court - they demand action, whether that be thought, a phone call, or (just!) the time to reply. One of the biggest problems with emails is that they are like a virus, they spawn more emails - they demand replies and very soon everyone is sending emails to each other. The consequence is that the whole tempo of the organisation speeds up to the point where it is out of control and people simply cannot cope any more.
The 1900 to 0700 Curfew
Berkhamsted School is like most other organisations: emails came through morning, noon and night. We took the view in September 2013, that we would limit our internal email traffic to weekdays between 0700 and 1900 only. This principle was extended to parents in March 2015 - parents were informed that any emails sent outside 'office hours' would be dealt with the next working day. There is nothing to stop colleagues from drafting replies outside these times, so long as they use the 'delayed delivery' function in Outlook (Options - Delay Delivery).
The key principle here is that we all to manage our own time as we see fit, but that it is wrong to put the ball into a colleague's court by sending an email outside the working day.
Two years on, the volume of email traffic has reduced and emails are generally more considered - there are fewer late night alcohol induced rants. Most importantly there has been a shift in mindset: there has been a cultural shift in the moral 'high ground' colleagues no longer feel guilty not replying to an email - colleagues now feel guilty for sending them. Colleagues now feel that it is acceptable to ignore evening and weekend emails. When colleagues break the curfew, it is quite common for them to preface their emails with "I'm sorry to break the curfew, but . . . ", which can be quite endearing when the 'but' is an enthusiastic member of the coaching staff sharing the weekend success of a school sports team.
The result is that the school is calmer. We are working smarter not longer. The whole exercise has meant that staff feel valued. Achieving a term-time work-life balance in our school community remains a challenge, but we have taken one small step in the right direction, and that is appreciated by us all.
Key Lessons learned
- A change in email culture needs to be driven from the top - school leaders need to be role models and create a culture where teachers 'have permission' to ignore 'out of hours' email traffic. It is well known that employees follow the lead of senior figures in organisations in order to get on: as School Principal, I made a point of activating my 'out of office' notification at weekends.
- Breaches of the curfew need to be followed up with an informal conversation - particularly when the perpetrators are in the SLT.
- Staff need training in how to use the 'Delayed Delivery' feature in Outlook.