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.