Replying to work emails after business hours, weekends, or vacation - Email Etiquette
The previous, "Reply and Reply to All" tutorial explained guidelines you can follow the determine whether or not you should respond to email messages you receive, based on a number of factors. In this tutorial, we will give you pointers for emails you receive "after hours", including weekends, personal days off, vacations, and official holidays. These tips will of course depend on a couple of things, including your position in the company, whether you are self-employed or not, if these messages are sent to your professional or personal email address, and much more. This discussion will hopefully clarify your plan of action in balancing professionalism and ambition for advancement, the dangers of setting bad precedents, and the dangers of not being willing to "go the extra mile". Fax, phone, and internet and now web-enabled devices have blurred the lines between work and private life.
Three basic cases of "after-hours" emails
Let's first distinguish between two types of email users: you can either be an employee or self-employed (for the purpose of this tutorial, upper- and top-management falls between two categories, so take your pick!) Thanks to the popularity of smartphones, and even low-cost handheld cell phones that support email, your work follows you everywhere you go.
Let's now assume that you just arrived home, or finished dinner, or are about to go to bed: in other words, you clearly are "off the clock". If you receive a work-related email, here are a few tips to determine the importance of that message, and act accordingly: note that just because your co-workers or boss doesn't have email manners doesn't mean you should forget about email etiquette yourself!
- The email is not important: ignore it, it was rude of your colleague or boss to bother you on your private time with something trivial; but be sure to reply to that message, or at least acknowledge its reception, as soon as you get back to your next shift of "business hours". If it's your boss, guess if he'll be reasonable or not if you don't reply to his/her email; he already isn't much of management material if he unwarrantedly emails you during your time off, but you can't say that of course...
- The email is moderately important, but doesn't require immediate action on your part, or you are unable to act on it until your next shift on the job. You should acknowledge the message, especially if it was politely worded (or necessary for that person to contact you outside of business hours), and formally say that you'll tackle the issue the next business day. To keep clear lines between work and private life, avoid giving out mental snapshots of your personal occupations (like "just watching TV", or "putting the kids to sleep"). Unless you have a very close relationship with the colleague or superior, keep it 100%, strictly business.
Tip: if these trivial emails are regularly sent to your personal email address after hours, a nice explanation might bring this undesirable pattern to an end: "I have forwarded this message to my work email address; otherwise, it's hard to keep track and I may forget it. I use my personal email address for family events and vacations". This non-confrontational and subtle answer should say enough for most everyone!
- The email is in fact urgent, and it was clearly justifiable to send you a message after hours, and you refrain from displaying your displeasure at seeing office stuff intrude into your freedom time. In the case of a truly important message, respond by email or phone to confirm that you received the message, and assure the colleague or superior that you'll handle the issue first thing on [your next business day on the job].
If you can and want to, you can go the extra mile and interrupt your time off to go to work (or to the nearest computer) to handle this problem. Our recommendation is to avoid giving the impression that you easily gave up - it's a dangerous precedent from which you may never be able to come back, at least without ruffling a few feathers. (We are not suggesting that you should avoid opportunity to showcase your dedication to your company, just use best judgment when giving away your family time in a heartbeat; the decision ultimately depends on your position, employment contract's terms, the future you see yourself having with that employer, etc.)
Tip: without being crass, try to make sure that others eventually know that you went out of your way to accommodate work if you do. Saying "no problem" will not only degrade the value of your dedication, but worst, it will send the message that you thought it completely normal to get emails from work after hours, or during vacations.
As you see, there's no clear-cut answer, and the actions you take, if any, are yours to ponder. As final word of advice, never to reply too quickly to an email message sent to you "after hours" - this kind of (servile) availability will also set a bad precedent in terms of expectations! Respect work, but also respect yourself and your family.