Firms tell employees: Avoid after-hours e-mail
By Cecilia Kang,
Tonight, employees at the Advisory Board have an unusual task: Stay off e-mail.
Stash away those smartphones and laptops, the District firm has instructed. For those who just can’t stay away, read but don’t reply. And while we’re at it, ignore your inbox throughout the weekend, too, the firm added.
The consulting firm’s push for no after-hours e-mail 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 rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.
For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, 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.
And that presents one of the great conundrums of our recessionary era: E-mail has helped companies eke out more from each worker. But the perpetually plugged work culture is also making us feel fried.
“There is no question e-mail 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-
Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.
More often, employees work evenings and weekends beyond their normal hours and do not record 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.
“Problems with work-life balance have become much worse, especially as the economy has taken a downturn,” said Catherine Ruckelshaus, the legal codirector of the National Employment Law Project. “Fewer workers doing jobs more used to do and are getting squeezed to do more work.”
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 just workplace grumbling. Two years ago, a Chicago police officer sued the city for back overtime spent tapping away at his BlackBerry.
There will always be those who just can’t stay away. For managers facing make-or-break decisions, waiting until the next day is simply unrealistic. Some workers may think an e-mail time-stamped 2 a.m. is a way to show initiative. Others may be loathe to demand overtime pay because of hopes of advancement.
“Unpaid work at home appears to be a form of investment made in expectation” of a promotion later, said Youngwon Song, head of the economics department at Union College, who researched how technology has boosted unpaid work at home.
But at the Advisory Board, frustration over post-work e-mails 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 to tackle after hours.
So over Labor Day weekend, the company launched an experiment: an e-mail-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 in which his only e-mails were about his children’s lacrosse games and dinner plans with friends.
“I would have stewed on those work e-mails for a while and thought about a reply, which is time away from whatever else I am doing at that moment,” Musslewhite said.
“It’s not large in minutes but frees your mind in other ways,” he said, adding, “I’m personally enjoying this myself.”
After that weekend, a group of more than 100 employees continued the policy of no e-mail. Musslewhite is back to e-mailing 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 e-mails, to control inbox overload.
It’s too early to say how the policies are affecting productivity, he said. But Musslewhite said e-mail has become a burden even during business hours. So much time is spent on e-mail busywork that employees aren’t able to focus on new and creative ideas as much as they would like, he said.
“My work is very important to me, but waking up in the middle of the night to check e-mails and worrying about e-mails 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 e-mail for each weekend at 5:30 p.m. Friday and doesn’t look again until Monday morning. Important clients know to call her cellphone if they need her urgently.
At PBD Worldwide, an Atlanta-based shipping company, the mood among workers has been noticeably better since the company adopted a policy of nights- and weekends-free. Work e-mails “can wait,” said Lisa Williams, vice president of human relations. “The world isn’t going to end.”
The distractions of e-mail prompted French information technology services firm Atos last year to announce plans to end e-mail altogether. Managers had been wasting five to 20 hours a week just reading and responding to e-mail, the firm said. Instead, it will use instant messaging and other tools to communicate among staff.
“E-mail for a long time delivered on the notion of increased speed, reach and efficiency,” said William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” “But the more you start cc’ing 50 people, just in case, and replying all to those 50 people, the more e-mail starts to undermine itself.”
But compulsively checking e-mail after-hours can be a hard habit to break.
Sharon Ringley, who runs TwinLogic Strategies, a District-based lobbying shop for tech firms, is often scolded by colleagues for sending late-night e-mails. On a recent vacation, she compulsively checked e-mail while reading a digital book on her iPhone, even though there was no reason to expect work on her trip.
“I finally went to go buy a ‘real’ book so I would stop,” Ringley said.