Today's Reading

When in the limited-email condition, participants also felt much less distracted and better able to focus. Although stress itself was the only direct effect linked to the reduction in email, the reports of lowered stress were also associated with other positive results, such as social connection, sleep quality, and even finding meaning in life. Interestingly, the effect of limiting email on lowering stress was found to be about as strong as the effects of many common relaxation techniques, such as slow breathing and peaceful imagination. In other words, limiting email may not bring people to their happy place, but it will lower stress just as much as being there.

Researchers believe that limiting email decreases stress and increases productivity because it cuts back on multitasking and distraction. "Email increases multitasking," said Kostadin Kushlev, the lead author on the limited-email study. "It fragments our attention and contributes to our feeling that there is too much to do and not enough time to do it." A significant body of work suggests that when two tasks require the same level of cognitive resources (working memory), people cannot perform them simultaneously. Because of the amount of focus and thought required, they don't actually multitask but instead switch between the two tasks, juggling them back and forth. This explains why many of us can drive normally while listening passively to the radio, but using a smartphone to talk, text, or compose email harms our driving ability almost as much as driving while intoxicated.

Beyond dealing with the cognitive load on working memory of executing two tasks at the same time, the switching back and forth makes further demands on working memory. To make matters worse, some theories suggest that approaching the limits of our working memory leaves us even more prone to distraction—and hence likely to toss one more weight onto our cognitive load. With notifications received every time a new email arrives, email inboxes are perfectly designed to encourage task-switching. Moreover, the inbox is often designed so that users see both the current email and a list of several other emails awaiting attention. Even worse, most of us leave our email program running in the background, drawing us away from whatever other computer programs we are working in and luring our attention back to the inbox. By leading us to task-switch, email not only increases our stress but actually reduces the quality of our overall work. That explains why participants in both studies who limited or eliminated email in their workday reported feeling more productive. "Multitasking often feels exciting, and we may feel like we are getting a lot done," said Kushlev. "But this subjective feeling is an illusion."

Beyond reducing our ability to focus on the present job, work email can also encroach on our ability to focus at home, unsettling whatever work-life balance we're seeking. So while only a few companies have taken the leap that Thierry Breton called for at Atos, many companies have taken steps to limit email to normal workday hours.

In 2011, a few months after Atos's zero-email policy went into effect, the automaker Volkswagen agreed to cease email communication outside of normal business hours. The company configured its email servers to stop sending or receiving email from German staff members thirty minutes after the end of the workday and to resume the connection thirty minutes before the next workday begins. Volkswagen staff can still use the phones to make calls and to browse the Internet after hours, but no new emails come through and any emails that they compose aren't sent until the server connection is turned back on. The limited-email policy applies only to staff working under trade union-negotiated contracts and not to senior management. Shortly after Volkswagen adopted the policy, the German Labor Ministry adopted it for its own staff and recommended that other companies follow suit and, at the very least, establish clear guides for staff email usage. Even today as some of Volkswagen's other practices are being called deceitful, the practice of limiting email is catching on in a positive way.

Later, after this announcement in Germany, news came from France that an agreement had been signed between prominent French labor unions and employers in the technology and consulting industries. The agreement covered about 250,000 "autonomous employees" and specified an obligation to disconnect communication tools so that employees would not be interrupted during their time off from the office. The employees affected were exempt from France's standard thirty-five-hour workweek and hence worked weekends and sometimes thirteen-hour days. The agreement specified that these employees had to have at least one day off every seven days, with no email communication during their time off.

Perhaps the most novel anti-email tactic was put into place by the German automaker Daimler. The Volkswagen rival took aim, not at after-hours email, but at vacation email. In 2014 the company installed a new program on its email servers that lets employees select a "Mail on Holiday" out-of-office reply. Like traditional out-of-office programs, when an employee receives an email, the sender automatically receives a message that the employee is out of the office and will return on a specified date. Unlike traditional programs, however, the program then notifies the sender that the email will be deleted and requests that the sender either resend it on the employee's return date or send it to a specified alternative person who is not away from the office. Vacationing employees are spared from seeing (and thinking about) emails during their time off, and often they return to an empty email inbox as well. The program is optional, but available to about 100,000 employees throughout Germany.


Introduction: Management Needs New Management

1. Outlaw Email
2. Put Customers Second
3. Lose the Standard Vacation Policy
4. Pay People to Quit
5. Make Salaries Transparent

6. Ban Noncompetes
7. Ditch Performance Appraisals
8. Hire as a Team
9. Write the Org Chart in Pencil
10. Close Open Offices

11. Take Sabbaticals
12. Fire the Managers
13. Celebrate Departures

Afterword: Reinventing the Management Engine


What our readers think...

Contact Us Anytime!

Facebook | Twitter