Q: My colleagues want my cell phone number so they can text if they’re offsite or traveling. Frankly, I’d rather not be reachable by cell, especially since the work/life divide is blurred enough already. Plus, it’s my personal phone and not one my company provides. Do I have to answer when they call my phone or can I wait until they call the office or email me?
A: If your employer expects you to be available by cell phone for work, they should provide a phone or pay a portion of your monthly bill. This is a conversation between you and your manager, not you and the colleagues asking for your number. If you have a direct dial number, you can provide that for calls, but it doesn’t address the issue of texts. You’re right—the work/life divide is increasingly blurred and using the same device for personal and professional communication contributes to that. The positive thing is that you have control over the hours of your availability. All employees should be available by any form of technology during work hours, but beyond that, you can make it clear when you will and will not be reachable by phone or text. Use your phone’s settings to silence calls or send them straight to voicemail in your “off hours.” Both you and the company need to set clear expectations around cell phone availability, but not providing your number is not an option, and taking your frustration out on your colleagues may create a negative relationship where one doesn’t need to exist.
It sounds like your biggest concern is the issue of what seems like unlimited access or the immediacy of text demands. This might require a group, division, or company conversation around norms, expectations, and culture. Some companies absolutely expect employees to be available at any time by phone or text because the nature of the business calls for it. Another organization’s employees might never look at their texts or emails in off hours and that’s totally normal for them. Policies also change over time as technology and larger cultural norms evolve. Even 10 years ago, texting was not a standard form of communication in or out of the workplace, but as needs, options, and behaviors change, policies and norms will change, too.
Part of the cell phone conversation might include identifying acceptable hours for outreach and discussing what situations call for a text or call to someone’s personal phone. The company might decide that it’s okay to wait to respond to a work-related text any time after 5pm—unless it’s an urgent work need for a meeting first thing the next morning. The expectation there would be that any after-hours text should be for emergencies only, while an after-hours email might be for something less urgent. The medium should match the urgency of the need. So, if you see a text from your boss during dinner, you can likely expect that it’s important—and if you’re the one doing the dinner-time texting, always apologize and thank the individual for their assistance! Conversely, if a colleague calls your cell phone at 11am on a Tuesday when you’re easily accessible by your office phone, it’s fair to redirect their behavior with your preferences: “During work hours, I’m much more likely to answer my office phone than my cell phone, so if you need to reach me, that would be your best bet!”
Get clarity on what your company expects and, within those parameters, make your own preferences clear. Declining to give your cell phone number isn’t an effective option, but you can explain to colleagues how you prefer to communicate and what will get them the best response: “It’s easier for me to keep work-related communication over email or office phone, so I would prefer if my cell is reserved for urgent matters only.” Some people may not immediately follow those parameters, so if you get a text from someone, you might email them back with the response—as long as you also text them to let them know the answer is in their email. On your end, be flexible with your preferences when appropriate. Do your colleagues regularly work offsite or on the road? Email communication can be tough in those situations, and texting will be faster and more likely to get someone’s attention when they have a need. Since people’s needs and preferences are different, there will be some compromise to find processes that work for everyone.
A big part of your solution to this is self-management and making your preferences known. You don’t need to be on your phone all the time if that’s not your company’s expectation, but be willing to compromise when needed. Others will try to accommodate your preferences if you can accommodate theirs.