Academics: should we stop emailing our colleagues and students at 7pm?

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed (Athene Donald, ‘Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?’)

My University is serious about the Athena Swan process, and I have begun to coordinate the bronze application for our School of Arts and Humanities. My impression from the guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit is that the focus is more on the process in which we come up with a good strategy than the strategy itself (or, at least, they should have equal weight).

In other words, it is not enough to import something that worked in another department or University, partly because a lot of these initiatives only work when they are introduced on the back of meaningful discussion about their rationale and likely consequences.

My not-entirely-useful analogy (which I use in empirical policy analysis) is with medicines: with ibuprofen the important thing is the active ingredient, isobutylphenyl (which comes with a suggested dosage), and the delivery system – such as the capsule – is less important. Yet, in policy, the ‘delivery system’ can be the crucial factor since it involves issues such as how you determine the best ‘intervention’, who is involved in the decision, and how you will seek to persuade people about, or ‘coproduce’, the best way forward.

Are there any quick wins?

I’d been hoping that, during the development of our application, we might produce a few ‘quick wins’ –  solutions that are so obvious and well supported that we can put them forward for School approval with minimal discussion – to allow us to focus on the more ambitious and difficult proposals. Yet, even at this early stage, I’m not sure they exist.

Let me give you the example of this solution to one problem: let’s not email our colleagues or students at the weekends and outside the hours of 7am and 7pm.

I think there is a good rationale for this solution if you start at one particular place with an argument relevant to Athena Swan:

  • Universities have a reputation for implicitly encouraging long working hours
  • Part of the problem is a macho or male-dominated culture in which you boast about how long you work (and, in effect, how willing you are to ignore your families while you climb the career ladder)
  • People often refer to this expectation for long working hours to make unrealistic demands on University staff: some managers looking for increased outputs, and some students demanding late night and weekend responses to emails.

So, we need a solution which places limits on those expectations and symbolises the need:

  1. For all staff to maintain a good work/life balance for the sake of their mental and physical health.
  2. To make sure that the staff with significant caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged by the promotions and pay rises system based on the unrealistic expectations that only so many people can meet (in the context of a working assumption based on probability: that women are more likely to have such caring responsibilities).
  3. In terms of the initial aims of Athena Swan, to make sure that this culture does not dissuade women from entering the profession, or contributes towards them leaving.

On that basis, a 7-7 (no weekend) email policy looks like a great solution. It is simple and looks feasible (it is easy to communicate and you can likely track its progress) and would signal to people that there should be a time when work stops and life begins (even if the simple dichotomy is misleading). A University commitment to such a policy would signal to managers and students that they should not expect a response from staff at particular times, and might spark off a more meaningful discussion on these issues.

Yet, it will not be a quick win, for the following reasons:

  1. Without consultation, you don’t gather enough relevant information and identify alternative perspectives on the same issue. For example, I have spoken to people with caring responsibilities who would see this move as detrimental to the flexibility they enjoy as academics. For example, some people catch up on emails when their children have gone to bed in the early evening, and many would resent the additional burden of rescheduling their work.
  2. Without discussion, you don’t generate ‘ownership’ of policies. These policies, which largely began as a way to help people, can soon seem like a top-down imposition which makes their working lives worse.
  3. The subsequent debate on this issue takes time away from the consideration of others. The perception of imposition tends to produce prolonged debate. Seemingly simple solutions begin to dominate our time-limited discussions, since it is often easier to debate in painful detail the minutiae of University rules than to take a collective step back to think of the big picture.

In other words, all of these ‘no brainer’ solutions can have major unintended consequences.

So, where do we go from here?

In this case, it would be tempting to produce a fudge about not normally emailing after 7, and focus on explaining its rationale without trying to change behaviour directly, but my impression is that the ECU wants specific ‘actionable’ plans which allow us to measure our progress towards an aim. It would also be tempting to come up with a technological solution, which allows us to click a button to delay the sending of our emails (which is not always as easy as it sounds when you work off campus).

Who knows? I guess, until we ask enough people in our departments, we won’t find out. Or, if anyone else has tried out this sort of solution in Universities, I’d like to know about it. Please feel free to add a comment with more information.

Update: so far, when people have expressed concerns or opposition to such a policy, they say that: the real aim is to remove the expectation that people have to reply to emails outside normal working hours, so address it directly. I’d be interested in any initiative to do that without a limited hours policy. For example, has any division/ University simply made a statement to staff and students about what they can expect?

See also: you can follow some of the twitter discussion by opening the link here Twitter thread


Filed under Athena Swan

3 responses to “Academics: should we stop emailing our colleagues and students at 7pm?

  1. Emma

    I’m one of these people, ‘ For example, some people catch up on emails when their children have gone to bed in the early evening, and many would resent the additional burden of rescheduling their work.’ I save these emails to the draft folder and send them the next day – it’s a not a huge burden. We should stop emailing between 7pm-7am. The gains outweigh the difficulties. I am trying to do this.

  2. Paul, thank you for an interesting perspective on time and expectation management at UK HEI. I do wonder if a 7am-7pm daily working schedule is desirable (or who thought that’s a healthy balance) and whether encouraging people to actually plan ahead and not treat email communications as final instructions would produce better outcomes (such as having healthier life/work balance)?

    i really don’t care whether an email arrives at 21hrs, 1, 7, 13 or 16hrs, i can only do so much in a day and some things have to wait for the following working day (whether it is a day or a weekend wait is irrelevant). If we continue to chew more, subsidising this from personal time and limited salaries, without taking a stance then we perpetuate the problem and force ourselves into a rather stressful and joyless existence.

  3. Oh, and the ASSHBL subjects think it’s going to be so easy to get Athena SWAN awards!

    Excellent post!

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