March 24, 2008

Companies discover “email-free days” actually increase productivity

We’ve all been frustrated by the difficulty in reaching people we need to talk to. Everyone is so busy, it seems, they have no time to do anything.

I know a woman who got so frustrated with people who don’t return phone calls or e-mails that she adopted an unusual tactic: First she phones and, of course, gets kicked into voice mail. So she leaves a message, then sends an e-mail asking the recipient to check his voice mail.

Sadly, it sometimes works.

Of course, it just adds to the e-mail burden — a burden some people hate, but others love.

Those who love a lot of e-mail often tend to be people who wear their busyness like a badge, even though they can stay busy for days without getting much real work done. Those who hate a lot of e-mail seem mostly to be people who have a good idea of what their job is really supposed to be, and resent the interruptions that e-mail often represents.

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

E-mail can be a productivity killer, which is why a small but growing number of companies are trying to do something about it.

PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services, of Atlanta, began “no e-mail Fridays” two years ago, and everyone from the boss down is getting more work done. Loblaw, the grocery giant, has introduced e-mail-free days. So have Intel Corp. and U.S. Cellular Corp.

Others have launched campaigns to reduce weekend e-mail, or to reduce e-mail every day.

Serena Software, of California fits into this group. So does a part of Deloitte & Touche’s consulting practice.

Scott Dockter, head of PBD, launched his e-mail-free Fridays when he realized one day that he was writing his eighth e-mail on the same subject to his assistant, whose desk is only a few feet from his own. After the ban had been in place for a while, he found that productivity in his company had actually increased. Employees were spending more time talking on the phone to clients. Clients began dropping in to the office to talk about their needs and get to know their service reps, who suddenly had time for such visits.

Dockter’s policy worked.

For some people, though, it’s a hard step to take.

Psychologist Ken Siegel classifies the e-mail habit as a “dependency,” and, he warns, cut employees off from their habit and some may become hostile and critical.

At first, he says, efforts to communicate in other ways can be tentative, at best, and for a while some “will take one or two steps forward and three or four steps back.”

Jeremy Burton, head of Serena Software has been able to curb his own e-mail habit. Heavy users, he says, will sometimes need their boss’s intervention to help them on their way to a cure.

“Somebody has to say, ‘No, we’re going to turn this off.’ It’s a bit of a shock, but that’s what it takes.”

Google, the search-engine giant, takes a different tack.

Finding that technological tools like cellphones and BlackBerrys were distracting employees from their real work, the company instituted a policy setting aside time for creative thinking.

Google’s engineers are allowed to spend a day a week working on things that aren’t in their job descriptions, and it has paid off. Both Gmail and Google News grew out of ideas hatched by engineers during that time away from their core jobs.

All of which leads me to a favourite book I’ve recommended before.

It’s called Slack, and it’s based on the idea that people need time to kick back, bat ideas around, and just think. That, says author Tom DeMarco, is where the good ideas come from.

The book’s subtitle gives you a good idea of what it’s all about: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency.

It only costs about 20 bucks, and could be the best money you’ll ever spend.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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