Employers rein in after-hours e-mails to boost productivity

Demands of round-the-clock communications putting too much stress on workers' private lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:39am

Katey Klippel makes a point of keeping her smartphone in her bag when she returns home from a hard day at the management consulting firm where she works in Washington.

That way, she can better practise what her employer preaches and stop checking her e-mails after hours.

"Before, I would take my computer home," Klippel, 26, said. "I would pull up my e-mails to check things, or knock off a few extra emails while watching TV or cooking dinner. I don't do that anymore."

With technological progress shaking up the work-life balance like never before, some employers are taking action.

In September, Klippel's employer The Advisory Board Company imposed an "e-mail moratorium" over the three-day Labour Day weekend on its 1,850 employees, including top brass.

"I found myself looking at my iPhone and ready to respond, but I told myself, 'No, let it go,'" said chief executive Robert Musslewhite, who has issued guidelines to curb after-hours e-mailing.

E-mail has no doubt helped to speed up communication, but Musslewhite sees a "growing sentiment" that its growth has crossed a stage where it is now cutting into productivity.

"That's the part we really want to tackle," he said. "There's some part of e-mail that has gone too far and that is now impeding productivity."

The Advisory Board's guidelines seem sensible enough, such as limiting the number of addresses of any given e-mail, summing up the message in the subject line, and opting for instant messaging.

Juggling e-mails or taking phone calls after hours adds up to an extra month and a half of work every year, according to a study by software developer Good Technology.

Outside the United States, some major corporations such as French IT services group Atos have virtually banned e-mailing once employees have clocked out for the day.

"There is a growing sentiment that e-mail is not very productive, and actually decreases productivity," said Dr Gwanhoo Lee, an associate professor of information technology at American University. "A typical manager receives hundreds of e-mails a day, and that consumes a substantial amount of work hours."

Some organisations are trying to move away from e-mail in favour of instant messaging or social media .

Nevertheless, "many organisations are still expecting their employees to check their e-mails even over the weekend or when out of town", he said.

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, barely one company in five has an e-mail policy, and out of those, only one in four aims to strike a balance between professional and private lives.

Judith Glaser, founder of consulting firm Benchmark Communications, said many employees are consumed by e-mails because they are driven by a need to feel part of an organisation.

The secret is to discuss the expectations of each employee and enable them to plan to take time off, free of e-mail, "without being stressed", she said.