A different kind of email policy

A mobile phone email inbox showing one new message

As someone who has been involved in policy work for a good while, I remember the days when creating an email policy was a big deal. It had the same level of focus that social media policies get today.  I’m sure that when workplaces first introduced desk phones we felt the need to tell people how to use them too. We created rules and processes.  Management guidance and lists of dos and don’ts. 

Eventually, these things become so part of the everyday (or even passé) that the need for a policy wanes.  I reckon there are plenty of email policies out there though, all the same.

Recently, someone in my Twitter timeline talked about the need for a different type of email policy – a healthy email policy.  

Email as a bad reputation.  We know that it can be a problem. Not the tool itself but how, and often when, it is used. There are many organisations where the email culture isn’t healthy at all. Competitive late night emailing. Expectation of immediate responses.  Meaningless out of office messages, because employees feel like they can never really switch off.  The passive aggressive cc.  The ‘confirming our discussion’ type.  And so on.

Of course, it’s not just unhealthy organisational habits, but personal ones too. We jump to the inbox ping, an ingrained Pavlovian response. Our emails are often in our pockets or on our smart watches, following us everywhere, quietly nagging us for a response.  And we do.

So just what could a healthy email policy look like? For some organisations it means banning emails ‘out of hours’ or automatically deleting emails when people are on holiday.  Both of these feel a little too much like treating employees like children who can’t manage their own workloads.  It also risks enforcing the idea that there is any such thing as a ‘normal’ working day.

Instead, a healthy email culture is one where someone does not feel like they have to respond immediately or be thought of as less committed or motivated. Where you can put an out of office on and mean it.  Where, if someone wants to work late at nights or weekend, they do so in a way that doesn’t role model unhealthy or unhelpful habits (just put them in your drafts folks and send them in the morning or let people know that it’s because you work flexibly).  It also means an email culture where sometimes we don’t send one at all and just get up and have a conversation instead. 

Do we need a healthy email policy?  In an ideal world – no. Or at least we shouldn’t, in an adult to adult working environment. Instead, we need to start with ourselves by creating our own healthy email habits – and challenging the unhealthy ones we see from our colleagues too, along the way.  Maybe what we need instead of yet another policy is a reminder that when it comes email (and indeed pretty much everything else) we need to work with both wellbeing and colleagues in mind. 

Flexible working for all?

The Labour party recently announced that should they return to government they would introduce flexible working from day one, with the intention that there would be a presumption for flexible working with all roles.   It’s hard to see how this could work in practice – but of course it all depends on what we actually mean by flexible working.

Talk of flexible working brings with it a range of assumptions and biases. Many people understand flexible working to mean working part time  or some form of reduced hours – very often for family reasons.  It is, regretfully, seen as omething of interest primarily to the mothers of young children. Within that somewhat limited definition it could be possible to have a legislative framework in which any full time job should be considered as suitable for working fewer hours.  The 37.5 hour working week is after all, a fairly arbitrary invention.

But flexible working is so much more than that.  All too often we look at it through the family friendly lens. This article from the Guardian illustrates that nicely.  Check out the accompanying stock image (also included at the top of this blog).  A woman in a business suit, baby on shoulder.  Flexible working isn’t something that mums want when they have a small child – but this is how it is often portrayed – both in the media and within organisations.

There are so many reasons people want to work flexibly. Some of these are practical; caring responsibilities, financial reasons (just consider the cost of commuting), disabilities, children.  Others are lifestyle or wellbeing choices.  Combining work with study or hobbies, the desire for greater life work balance.  None is ‘better’ or more important than others. 

Yes, women do the bulk of the childcare in our society, and broader care responsibilities too. That’s part of a bigger problem.  The solution isn’t to make it easier for women to get flexible working, but to make flexible working an accepted norm for everyone.  The 26 week wait to request flexible working is undoubtedly a barrier to flexibility.  The statutory framework could also be much improved, not least because it’s all too easy to reject a request on the flimsiest of grounds. Of course, in our internal policies we can always choose to do so much better than the minimum statutory requirements. 

But when it comes to flexible working the real issue (and barrier) however, is attitudes.

Too often, when it comes to flexible working, the answer is no,now what’s the question?

There is all too often a belief that flexible working will be exploited. That it’s an excuse for skiving.  That there’s nothing in it for the organisation.  That men don’t need it, and those that do are somehow weak or available for jokes.  That those who work flexibly are somehow less committed and motivated.

This is the stuff  that needs to change, perhaps more than the legislation itself.

Perhaps we can start with our stock images – and our own internal framing. Where’s your flexible working policy?  In with your employee benefits – or next to the maternity and adoption policy?