Some companies delete off-hours emails
Some firms are telling employees to avoid sending or reading after-hours email to reduce burnout.
The Washington Post
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Tonight, employees at the Advisory Board consulting firm have an unusual task: stay off email.
Stash those smartphones and laptops, the Washington, D.C., firm's executives have instructed. For those who just can't stay away, read but don't reply. Ignore your inbox this weekend, the firm added.
The firm's push for no after-hours email is part of a growing effort by some employers to rebuild the boundaries between work and home that have crumbled amid the do-more-with-less ethos of the economic downturn.
In recent years, one in four companies have created similar no email rules, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Atlanta-based shipping company PBD Worldwide.
For the vast majority of employers, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever, thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say.
That presents one of the great conundrums of the recessionary era: Email has helped companies eke out more from each worker. But the perpetually plugged-in work culture is also making us feel fried.
"There is no question email is an important tool, but it's just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance," said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.
Official numbers show just one in 10 people bring work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it only counts those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.
More often, employees are working evenings and weekends beyond normal hours and not recording that time with their employers, labor-advocacy groups say. And that's made work bleed into just about every vacant space of time, from checking BlackBerrys and iPhones at school drop-offs, on the way home from happy hour and just after the alarm clock rings, they say.
In official government terms, all that extra work has contributed to what's known as the productivity index, which rose 3.1 percent in 2010, 2.6 percent in 2011 and is set to increase again this year. Yet the number of hours recorded by employees is fairly flat during those years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In some cases, the discrepancy has created more than workplace grumbling. Two years ago, a Chicago police officer sued the city for back overtime spent tapping away at his BlackBerry.
At the Advisory Board, the frustration showed up in an internal survey of its 1,750 employees. Workers said they would be happier and more likely to stick around longer if they had less after-hours email to tackle.
So over Labor Day weekend, the company began an experiment: An email-free holiday. Musslewhite, the board's chief executive, said it was important to set an example from the top, so he followed the rules, too.
It was his first weekend where his only emails were about his children's lacrosse games and dinner plans with friends."I would have stewed on those work emails for a while and thought about a reply," Musslewhite said. "It's not large in minutes but frees your mind from other ways," he said.
After that weekend, a group of more than 100 employees continued the no-email policy. Musslewhite is back to emailing after hours, but he schedules messages to be sent the next morning, not late at night. He is careful not to copy too many people on emails, to control inbox overload.
It's too early to say how the policies are affecting productivity, he said. But Musslewhite said email has become a burden even during business hours. So much time is spent on email busywork that employees aren't able to focus on new and creative ideas.
"My work is very important to me, but waking up in the middle of the night to check emails and worrying about emails over the weekend is not a sustainable or enjoyable way to live life," said Advisory Board senior manager Katey Klippel. She now checks her last email for each weekend at 5:30 p.m. Friday and doesn't look in until Monday morning. Important clients know to call her cellphone if they need her urgently.
At PBD Worldwide, the shipping company, the mood among workers has been noticeably better under the no-after-hours email policy. Work emails "can wait," said Lisa Williams, vice president of human relations. "The world isn't going to end."
The distractions of email prompted French information-technology-services firm Atos last year to announce plans to end email altogether. Managers had been wasting five to 20 hours a week just reading and responding to email, the firm said. Instead, it will use instant messaging and other tools to communicate among staff.