TREND TOWARD LIMITING WORKPLACE EMAIL
The next time you peek at your email on your “day off” give some thought to workers in Germany, where companies like Volkswagen and Deutsche Telecom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it not take place in the U.S.? According to an article in The New York Times, it not only could, but it should.
Indeed, limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s become a trend in Germany. At automaker Daimler, for example, in addition to limiting work-related email on evenings and weekends, employees can set their corporate email to “holiday mode” when they leave for vacation. Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering alternate contact details. Incoming email is deleted so employees don’t return to filled inboxes.
“The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a spokesman for German automaker Daimler told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”
In contrast, in the U.S., white-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to McKinsey Global Institute. And they check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior. And lots of that checking happens at home.
Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening.
Some workers don’t even take a break during dinner, peeking at the phone under the table, according to research cited in the article. And many even check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour.
So as a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the choke hold of after-hours email is a laudable goal, the article pointed out.
The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.
At the Toronto office of Edelman, the global public relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule, the article noted. Employees are strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. They can check email if they want, but they’re not to send it to colleagues.
Even start-ups are experimenting with email limits. Book Riot, a website for book lovers, has eight full-time employees who mostly work remotely, in different time zones, on often hectic schedules. They all agree: Email someone whenever you want, but don’t expect a reply until the recipient is back in the office.
“It’s understood that if someone has a crazy idea at 3 a.m. and sends it, that’s their problem that it’s 3 a.m. — you respond when you want,” Rebecca Schinsky, the site’s director of content, told the newspaper. At the Boston Consulting Group, when a team of stressed-out consultants began organizing “predictable time off” — no-messaging zones during their off time — their total work hours dropped by 11 percent, yet the same amount of work was accomplished.
Why would less email mean better productivity? According to the article, it’s because, as Deal found out, endless email is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.
When employees send a fusillade of miniature questions via email, or “cc” every team member about every little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision on their own. Often, Deal found, they’re worried about getting in trouble or downsized if they mess up. In contrast, when employees are empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own, using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues.
When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable, and employees become more mindful of when they write.
Granted, not all late-night email is bad. As Ms. Deal found, employees don’t like being forced to reply at 1 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility of being able to shift some work to the evening if they choose. And they don’t mind dealing with genuine work crisis that crop up during leisure hours. At Edelman in Toronto, employees try not to bug others in the evening – but if a client emails with a time-sensitive issue, they’ll respond.
Changes to email use just can’t happen through personal behavior though, the article pointed out. The policy needs to come from the top. If the boss regularly emails a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do email at midnight.”
More than a century ago, blue-collar workers fought for a limited workday with an activist anthem: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” According toThe New York Times article, it’s a heritage we need to restore