Why late-night emails can harm your team

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Late one night, you realize there is a key problem your team must address on a current project, or you suddenly remember the question you meant to ask someone earlier that day. You quickly send out an email while it's on your mind.

When sending late-night emails, do you expect your team members to respond immediately? Or are you simply sending the message because you're thinking about it in that particular moment? According to Maura Thomas, a productivity trainer specializing in attention management, it doesn't matter.

"If it's the former, you're intentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7. If it's the latter, you’re unintentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7," she wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Being connected during after-work hours during busy periods is the sign of a high-performer, while never disconnecting is the sign of a workaholic. According to Ms. Thomas, there is a big difference, and leaders have a strong influence on producing both.

There are two main reasons late-night email habits transfer from the leader to his or her team, she says.

Ambition. If the leader sends emails late at night or on the weekends, most employees think a prompt response is required, or that he or she will be impressed by an immediate response.

Attention. There are also many employees who don't intend on working after hours, but because they have poor attention management skills, they're accustomed to multitasking and managing distractions. Because of this, they find themselves mindlessly checking emails, texts and social media on their phones. Late-night emails feed into this bad habit.

After-hours emails have a profound effect on corporate cultures, resulting in lower creativity, innovation and even reduced productivity. A frantic environment where employees adhere to the expectation — actual or perceived — that they must answer emails at all hours increases business and distraction. Additionally, constantly being "on" means employees aren't allowing themselves proper downtime, which is necessary for new ideas.

"Creativity, inspiration and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged," Ms. Thomas wrote. Leaders can help set expectations and guidelines about emailing to help their team preserve their downtime and refine their attention management abilities.

  • Replace the phrase "time management" with "attention management," and make training this important skill part of your staff development plan.
  • Refrain from after-hours communication. If you are worried you will forget something that you want to send in an email, save the message as a draft and then send it in the morning.
  • Demonstrate "attention management" across the work environment — put away devices when speaking with your team, especially during meetings, to promote complete engagement.
  • Create remote work options for employees for high concentration roles, tasks and projects.

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