Banning Email Use After Hours: an Update

Posted on June 29, 2017 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Organizational Solutions
Family playing a board game

Five and a half years ago I blogged about how Volkswagen decided to turn off its Blackberry servers outside of work hours, thereby affording employees some quality time with their families and their lives. It was a pioneering move and a courageous one, and I added my hope that other companies would take note.

It took a while, but now companies and legislators are not merely taking note – they’re taking action. In fact some of them are not only enabling, but also enforcing a barrier between Work and Life that email may not penetrate. There is much more to be done, but there’s progress. Hallelujah!

The problem

The ubiquity of smart mobile devices, coupled with constant connectivity, has made checking email around the clock an integral part of the life of knowledge workers everywhere. People read email at home, on the street, during dinner, in their bedroom, last thing before falling asleep and first thing when they wake up. And when they read their email, they respond – then and there, creating mail for their coworkers to read, at the same times.

The problems this creates are manifold, and range from destruction of quality of life of the employees and their families, to stress and health damage, to reduced productivity, creativity and effectiveness due to inability to focus.

The solution

And here is the solution (drumroll): make employees avoid company email outside of work hours. You can set this up as a policy: no work email between, say, 6PM and 8AM and during the weekend. You can reinforce the policy by blocking access to company email at the technology layer – what Volkswagen had done in 2011 when they turned off the Blackberry servers.

Implementation: companies

The encouraging news is that there are companies that are taking a stand, by doing exactly that. This literally made the news – see this video for example. We learn that Vynamic (a healthcare management consulting firm in Philadelphia), and Bandwidth (a Communications Provider from North Carolina) have policies in place that free employees from doing work email outside of work time. Listen to Vynamic’s CEO in the video – his conviction is inspiring!

Following in Volkswagen’s tracks, German automaker Daimler has put in place in 2014 a policy that allowed employees to automatically delete emails sent to them during vacations. Now that sends a powerful message!

While most organizations still aren’t there, it’s encouraging to see the issue of the “Right to Disconnect” sparking debate in academia and in the media. There is even talk of the legality of allowing employees to read email at night without paying them overtime (and that’s one aspect that employers tend to be sensitive to). People are beginning to notice.

Implementation: Countries

This past January France has put in place legislation that requires companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate with these employees their right to switch off outside work hours; by default  the companies must create a charter that assigns hours when workers should not send or receive email. Yes – it’s the law! The law has no penalties attached, so may be difficult to enforce, but it will at a minimum raise awareness across the entire country (and it has drawn attention worldwide).

In Germany, meanwhile, the country’s employment ministry has a policy limiting email communication after hours to clearly urgent matters. It remains to be seen what other government agencies will do.

Further complexities

In theory the notion of limiting the processing of work email to work hours seems very sensible, but the reality is more complicated. Consider the difficulties:

  • These problems are exacerbated because the affected employees – that’s all of us, folks! – are addicted to the continuous checking of email, and resist mightily any attempt to talk them out of it. Between FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), and the Dark Side of Info Overload, they will continue to check email even if their managers beg them not to (I know; I’ve once run a formal experiment on a group of hi-tech engineers that were instructed firmly by management to avoid reacting to non-urgent emails at night – with absolutely no effect!). Because of this addictive behavior, you can’t just tell people to not check work email outside of work hours. They’ll ignore you and keep doing it, to the detriment of their life, health, spouses and children. So you need something stronger than telling.
  • Email is not about to go away anytime soon, but it is being complemented by a growing number of alternative channels such as WhatsApp, other instant messaging tools, Slack, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
  • In global companies, “work hours” is a very fluid term in any case.
  • Some messages are truly urgent, and need to be seen even off the job.

What really needs to be done

Given these complexities, a simple ban on off-hours email may not be enough. So what can you do?

You can run a full blown behavior change program aiming to modify the organization’s communication culture. This is a serious challenge, and requires an initial effort of maybe six months, followed by ongoing monitoring and continuous reinforcement. The program would of course address much more than the after-hours issue; the effect would run wide and deep. Think of it as email addiction rehab. With improved cultural norms your employees would be able to stick to the policy you publish and reap the benefits.

You would need to set up an emergency conduit to reach employees with truly important email. A simple means would be to have them accessible by cellphone (people would be more hesitant to use this channel than email, which would ensure it isn’t abused). But I expect that someone will develop the means to automatically sort the incoming mail and only let through urgent messages – either as marked by the sender or as determined by an AI application from actually analyzing the messages. Until this happens, you may need to improvise – but don’t delay: employees are driven to distraction by the current norm of around-the-clock mailing.

So – how about getting your own organization to do this? Let me know if it does!


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