Ding! Another message. Marcus Butts couldn’t help notice the change that happened when a friend or family member heard that familiar ding on their phone and checked their work-related email—an instant, demonstrable mood shift.
“It impacted them emotionally, cognitively and physically for the rest of the evening—for better or worse,” the associate professor of management at University of Texas Arlington says.
He was inspired to take a look at this “new night shift,” as some have put it—the increasing number of employees who never stop working, even after leaving the office, due to the constant flow of work-related electronic communications—and the impact it has on workers’ emotions and personal lives.
Butts teamed up with Wendy Boswell of Texas A&M University and William Becker of Texas Christian University to collect data from 341 employees for seven days immediately after they received an electronic communication from work when they’d left the office, after normal business hours.
Their findings, published as Hot Buttons and Time Sinks: The Effects of Electronic Communication during Nonwork Time on Emotions and Work-Nonwork Conflict, revealed that the more time the emails or texts took to read and/or reply to, “employees expressed more anger, and that anger caused people to feel that their work interfered with being involved in their nonwork pursuits,” Butts says.
And the tone of electronic communication affected employees, too: When the communication was negative, employees exhibited more anger; when it was positive, they displayed more happiness. “However, the happiness dissipated much faster than the anger did,” Butts says.
But the study also showed that the effects of after-hours communications depended on the receiver’s personality.
“Employees that are deemed as ‘segmentors’—those that prefer to keep their work and personal lives separate—viewed electronic communications as more interfering and bothersome for their personal lives because the communication took longer time to deal with,” Butts says. “Integrators—those that like to mesh their work and personal lives—didn’t perceive the time needed to deal with work communications as interfering with their personal lives.”
Butts notes that because electronic communication lacks important nonverbal cues present in face-to-face time, there is a higher likelihood that employees read into emails and texts “and view message content more negatively than intended,” he says.
And because we are naturally more drained at the end of the day, there is a higher likelihood that we craft messages to co-workers that are “rushed” and potentially ambiguous, or that we might react with terse replies. So, to prevent negative reactions, Butts suggests that employees put deliberate effort into clearly communicating messages.
He adds: “Just as companies now have training on proper meeting etiquette, it would be beneficial to establish protocol for when work emails should and should not be sent and what are the most appropriate topics to discuss via electronic communication versus face to face.”
But all of this said, employees do appreciate receiving positive communications—praise or encouraging feedback—after hours, “perhaps because they view it as a special situation where a fellow employee took time out of his or her personal life to send a positive message,” Butts says.
Managers can use this to their advantage, he says. “Make concerted efforts to praise employees for a job well done after hours because it is viewed positively by employees and can put them in a positive mood at night.”
And because you can’t really change whether you’re a work segmentor or integrator, it’s important when you’re job-seeking to consider the communication culture of prospective employers and how that will jibe with you.