When work expects you to be available 24/7: How to push back

Are you or your team being texted, emailed, Slacked, and otherwise pinged at all hours? Consider these ways to push back – politely – on work communications that lack boundaries
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Regular working hours – remember those?

Logging out of communication demands can seem nearly impossible in some organizations.

From email to group texts to cloud-based messaging and collaboration platforms, the work day has bled into personal time. What’s worse, logging out of these corporate communication demands can seem nearly impossible in some organizations. Yet being digitally tethered to work can foster resentment, burnout, and ultimately, lower productivity, especially for IT leaders and their teams.

There are ways to politely, but effectively, push back on expectations that IT or any team be ever-available.

5 ways to set boundaries on 24/7 expectations

The Enterprisers’ Project talked to Kevin Cuthbert, principal at executive development and leadership consultancy Bates Communications and co-author of "Lemonade: the Leader’s Guide to Resilience at Work," about some tactics to manage expectations and mitigate the impact of the continuous flow of digital communication.

“Clearly it matters where the request is coming from: if the CEO can’t get into a system, that is a Code Red,” Cuthbert says. Aside from that, however, there are some broadly applicable steps that can reduce the need to always be on.

1. Gather input and come to consensus within your team

A smart IT leader will invite his team to come together to develop some rules about always-on communication as well as collaborate on strategies for dealing with such demands. “Make it clear that you are striving for a workable environment, and – even though people have different work styles ­­– collectively you can create a set of rules to work by,” advises Cuthbet.

“It is important to also acknowledge that because of the criticality of the IT function it’s not always possible to achieve balance. But your intent to create an environment that works better will help people see a path to managing the burnout.”

[ Forget work-life balance. Try these expert tips on how to blend: 8 ways to reclaim sanity at work and home. ]

2. Negotiate communication SLAs

That’s right, we’re talking about service level agreements for IT’s availability. Cuthbert advises crafting these for both internal and external partners and also within the IT team itself. They will set expectations for how quickly IT will respond to urgent scenarios versus standard requests, Cuthbert says.

3. Create a triage plan

Sure, it matters who’s on the other end of the late night or early morning text or email. “But it matters even more what the issue is, and the level of severity,” says Cuthbert. Having a plan for how and when to respond to specific types of issues will alleviate some pressure and make priorities clear for whomever is on-call, says Cuthbert.

4. Be clear about your behaviors and expectations

This is especially important in cases where you may tacitly be encouraging the team to always be available based on your own communication patterns. “I was once in a very demanding role that meant my only time to catch up on email was on the weekends. I told my team upfront that because of my own schedule during the week I will send email on weekends,” Cuthbert recalls. “However, unless I mark it urgent or if I text them about it, I do not want a response until regular working hours.”

He also requested that team members either mark an off-hours emails as urgent if a reply was necessary or expect to receive a reply the next day or Monday (if it was a weekend).

5. When all else fails, take a stand

In particularly resistant cases, it can make sense to create clear boundaries (no calls or texts after 9 p.m., say, unless a true SOS). However, boundaries are meaningless if not enforced. Politely but firmly say no on behalf of yourself or your team when necessary before working overtime becomes working every-time.

Explain the rationale – the importance of rest and balance to the productivity of the team and enterprise ­– and set a hard line. “Sometimes you have to ‘be the change you want to see,’” Cuthbert says.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.