The move last week by labour unions and a federation of engineering and consulting firms in France to ban work e-mail after 6 p.m. – and the subsequent reaction around the world – reflects the exhaustion that workers are experiencing trying to cope with the 24-hour tsunami of e-mail we face. Such policies work.
When almost one in four of our Edelman Toronto employees told us in a 2010 survey that they were overwhelmed and stressed, our leadership team knew we had to make some changes. Perhaps the most challenging, yet highest impact, was the adoption of our "7-to-7" e-mail policy.
Here's how it works: Employees are told not to send e-mails between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and all weekend, unless it is an absolute emergency. Knowing that you even have to watch e-mail causes some stress. If an employee must get in contact with a colleague, he or she needs to do so by phone, so that employees are not expected to check e-mail during those hours. Employees are still welcome to work after hours, of course, but they delay the delivery of their e-mails until the morning. In terms of enforcement, we let employees know that – regardless of seniority – they are empowered to call out people who are not abiding by the rule.
The policy was met with much enthusiasm by employees. And when we tell others, including clients, partners and prospects, about it, we see both admiration and an immediate dismissal of the idea that their own organization could – or would – do the same.
I would argue that the adoption of this type of policy, which has been implemented by some other companies including Volkswagen AG, would benefit other organizations.
The continued blurring of the lines between work and life has no doubt had an impact on job performance and productivity – but not necessarily for the better. As Human Resources consulant Tony Schwartz points out in a contributed piece to the New York Times, Relax! You'll be more productive: "There is a new and growing body of multidisciplinary research that shows that strategic renewal – including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations – boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health."
We were keenly aware that this is a tricky policy in practice. As a professional services firm, we're at the mercy of our clients' demands, and need to ensure that we're delivering on their expectations – regardless of the hour of the day. We're also part of a global firm, working with cross-office client teams and across time zones, and this was a one-office decision. That said, reducing internal e-mails dramatically decreases the e-mail volume outside of work hours, thereby reducing employee stress levels.
Here are three key issues you need to address in order to roll out such an initiative:
Set appropriate rules
Adopting this type of policy is, without question, challenging to do in a client service-oriented business. But, with the right guardrails in place, it can be done. For example, our individual client teams have established the rules that work best for them.
Our leadership team, based on the demands of our business during regular office hours, often gets the majority of its work done outside of those. We've agreed that we're all comfortable receiving e-mail from each other during off-hours. Finally, I would even go so far as to say that, in spite of the fact that we're in the business of client service, we could teach our clients to respect our boundaries. It's one thing if an issue urgently needs to be addressed, but we encourage the behaviour by responding to those non-urgent e-mails after working hours – and often clients are equally frustrated.
Lead by example
Our leadership team has committed to abiding by the policy. It's important for employees to know that as a leader, you aren't focused on work 24/7, and that you have a rich life outside of work. While creating organizational support for this type of initiative is important, it's equally important that individuals are disciplined and disconnect too.
Stick with it
I can't tell you how effusive the employee response was when we introduced our policy. It was a clear demonstration that we'd heard their concerns about being overwhelmed, and we wanted to address the problem in a meaningful way. To commit to this is an investment in your employees' overall well-being, and to retrench from it – or allow "slippage" to occur – would be a huge setback. So, if you're going to do it, do it. And, if people start falling back into their old e-mail habits, it's important to remind them that the policy exists, and what problem it was meant to solve.
Even if you decide that this isn't something that you could consider for your organization, before pressing "send" on an e-mail outside of regular work hours, ask yourself if it's truly necessary. Instead, maybe you need to sleep on it. The next morning will come soon enough.