After-hours work e-mail devotion need not be

  • Article by: CLIVE THOMPSON , New York Times
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 7:29 PM

Some employers in some places are changing the culture.

 

This Labor Day weekend, odds are you’ll peek at your work e-mail — then feel guilty about it.

You might envy the serene workers at Daimler, the German automaker. On vacations, employees can set their corporate e-mail to “holiday mode.” Anyone who e-mails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an on-call staff person. Then poof, the incoming e-mail is deleted so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence.

Limiting workplace e-mail seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related e-mail to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.

White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about e-mail for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to e-mail a stunning 13.5 hours a day. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — fully 38 percent check work e-mail “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour.

So as a matter of sheer human decency, reducing the chokehold of after-hours e-mail is a laudable goal. Also, from a corporate standpoint, the sky won’t fall. The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.

At the Toronto office of Edelman, a global public-relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule. Employees are strongly discouraged from e-mailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. It’s an acknowledgment that the only way to really reduce e-mail is to persuade colleagues not to reflexively write every time they have the tiniest question.

“When we tell prospective employees about it, their eyes light up,” Lisa Kimmel, the general manager of the office, told me.

Would less e-mail mean better productivity? Deal found that endless e-mail is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.

When employees shoot out a fusillade of miniature questions via e-mail, or “cc” every team member about each niggling little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision. In contrast, when employees are actually empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own. They also start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly.

This is basic behavioral economics. When e-mail is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable.

Granted, not all late-night e-mail is bad. As 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 crises that crop up during leisure hours.

Changes can’t happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly e-mails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do e-mail at midnight.”) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate e-mail box for your personal messages. You can’t ignore your work inbox if that’s also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.

But it’s worth it. 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.” It’s a heritage that, this Labor Day, we need to restore.

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