Setting Boundaries When You Are “Always On”
PR professionals don’t have regular work hours – if you know you know. Working all the time isn’t a sustainable solution, though. Longer hours don’t necessarily allow you to be more productive — and what’s more, encouraging constant communication can damage employees’ well-being, work-life balance, and job performance.
I’m at the dawn of my PR career, so “always-on” is what I’ve always known. I’ve heard rumors, though, of something people used to have called “boundaries.” According to legend, before the dawn of smartphones, the typical 9 to 5 position ended the moment you stepped outside your office. You could call a colleague on their landline in an emergency, with “emergency” being the operative word, but in general, your after-hours time was your own.
Honestly, that all sounds made up – and that’s because it is. The whole concept of a “9 to 5” workday only ever applied to unionized hourly laborers, and employers have been finding ways around it pretty much since it was invented. “9 to 5” has never been how most people work, and it certainly doesn’t fit modern life or PR realities. The central idea behind “9 to 5” though, is one of balance: people should have eight hours per day to work, eight for personal time, and eight for whatever else (presumably sleep). That concept still has value. Yet, for many industries, the workday never truly ends. People work differing schedules, so emails and slack messages from clients and colleagues continue throughout the day, sometimes with pressing matters. How can individuals achieve balance when the organization never stops?
Lately, we’re seeing countries adopt the “Right to Disconnect Law,” legislation to help workers get a break from their employment responsibilities after work hours. SHRM.org shares that Ontario, France, Spain, and Portugal have all passed laws giving employees the legal right to stop engaging in work-related activities and communication after the workday. The United States may not be too far behind – the New York City Council is currently considering something similar. It’s hard to imagine any law getting PR to adhere to a strict 9 to 5 schedule, but that’s not really the requirement here. The bills don’t mandate the creation of organization-wide “off hours” – just that employers respect individuals’ downtime.
Setting and defending those boundaries requires discipline and open communication. Adopting a clearly articulated work/life balance policy gives employees the chance to fully disconnect from work. Here at Caster, we set work blocks on our calendars, letting each other know when we’re working and what we’re working on. Though our colleagues may send us emails or slack messages at any time, the expectation is that we’ll respond once we’re in the appropriate work block.
In boundary-setting, communication is key. Establish a clear scope of work with your clients; set company, client, and personal priorities; and establish a clear schedule for your colleagues to see.
While we’re seeing some companies prioritize their employee’s work-life balance, many workers still choose to complete off-hours requests. Economist Education reports that “60% of U.S. workers check email outside of business hours.” That instant availability can be intrusive and ultimately lead to burnout.
When you work in PR, you can’t control when a client emergency arises—and in general, you can’t control when other people are working or demand that they only send emails when you’re at your desk. When something is a true emergency, the Caster crew will escalate it to text and phone calls. We also require that our clients respect our time, operate within contract hours, establish project overlays where necessary, and charge time-and-a-half for any requested work during late nights and the weekends. This ensures that every client gets the most effective and productive Caster team possible – fresh, energized, and focused.
With technology often keeping us tethered to our jobs even when we’re not at the office, it can be hard to disconnect. “After-hours” communication is a fact of life: as emergencies pop up, deadlines must be met, or time-zone differences require. With clear policies, strong boundaries, and sound judgment, there are ways to achieve balance even when the organization is “always on.”