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Can ‘schedule send’ save us from out-of-hours emails?

Timing messages can aid flexible work but mask long hours

Like many young researchers Stephana Julia Moss sometimes finds herself sending emails late at night. Not that her colleagues know: she uses the schedule send function so emails composed at 11pm arrive the following morning.

For Moss and many of her friends, who work after hours because childcare invades the nine to five day, the function is invaluable. “Given the demands on a lot of young women professors there are certain parts of our day where we cannot respond to our email when our counterparts could,” she says.

As the boundaries between work and leisure time become more porous, Moss is one of many workers using hacks that enable them to work flexibly while protecting colleagues’ free time and respecting some uniformity of working hours.

But even the biggest fans of the send-later button acknowledge it is an imperfect fix.


Advocates say it delineates after-hours work as discretionary, not to be forced on others. It means dealing with a task without creating immediate extra work and gives time to review unnoticed errors. Evangelists share tips such as scheduling an email for a few minutes past the hour, not the default 8am, so recipients will be none the wiser.

“It’s useful if I’m doing work at a weird time and I want the email to land in someone’s inbox at a less weird time. If you’re doing really mental hours other people won’t know,” says one media executive.

There is a small joy in clearing a messy inbox on a spare evening, then arriving at work the next day just as a flurry of carefully crafted responses arrive with colleagues.

London Business School professor Dan Cable says the increased popularity of scheduling is a result of the Covid pandemic. People found themselves working more irregular hours from home but wanted to maintain that established hours still mattered.

That is a change from before 2020. Research Cable did in 2009 found that more people preferred to schedule in the opposite direction: setting correspondence to arrive after 7pm, for example, to make it look like they were working late when they were not.

“Bosses saw long hours as an index of commitment so people would simulate that desk time,” Cable says. “It’s now being used the opposite way: people are simulating that they’re working within work hours when they’re not.”

Some people do not agree it is a good thing to disguise working hours. Bonnie Dilber, recruitment lead at workforce platform Zapier, still schedules emails for when colleagues return from holiday or sick leave. But she has decided to scale back how much she uses the function because she believes it creates a false picture of how and when we work.

“Instead of hiding when we’re working from others, we should normalise not expecting immediate responses,” she says. “That means respecting the fact that people want to work when and how it makes sense for them, and having conversations about what that looks like.”

In a Eurofound survey last year more than 80 per cent of workers reported receiving work-related communications outside their contractual working hours, and the vast majority said they replied to them. Matt Creagh, policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says scheduling can help stop this “work intensification” by reducing email volumes. But he fears it can hide bigger workload issues. “People are still working at night.”

Rather than “placing the burden on the individual to tackle organisational culture”, Creagh says employers must ensure tasks can actually be reasonably completed within working hours. They can also limit expectations of after-dark communication.

Some have already taken action: in 2012 Volkswagen reportedly took steps so some emails sent after hours were held on servers until the next day. More recently new laws on the right to disconnect have encouraged similar practices. In France unions and employers should work together on policies that protect staff free time, and some have opted for organisation-wide scheduling or warnings to after-work emails, according to the TUC.

Creagh emphasises that these should not be “one size fits all” bans, but based on ongoing conversations with staff about their needs.

Among students and colleagues Moss now sees better communication about email response expectations, and managers who are happier to accommodate them. Scheduling is not the only way to support that – but it helps. “My friends and I use it not so much to create the illusion when we’re working within hours but to be respectful of those we’re working with,” she says. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024