How Do You Solve a Problem Like Email?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Email?

In a world of constant connectivity, it can be difficult for knowledge workers to separate themselves from their work and carve out genuine personal time. Employers can exacerbate this “always on” problem when they create an expectation that employees will respond to work-related emails at all hours simply because they can. At Quartz, Anne Quito passes along some solutions to that problem from participants in a workshop at last month’s TED conference:

The most insidious of all emails are those sent while we’re not in the office. German companies Volkswagen and Daimler AG have taken proactive measures to help employees safeguard their time off. Volkswagen’s Blackberry servers stops delivering messages after an employee’s shift and Daimler has a voluntary “Mail on Holiday” program that automatically deletes incoming messages when employees are on vacation. “As employees come back from holidays, they start with a clean desk,” explains a Daimler human resource representative to Quartz.

A manager who works in an Australia start-up says he turns his mobile phone off during the month he goes on annual leave. For bosses and clients who insist on keeping contact, he gives his out-of-office email as his out-of-office contact. “I say if you need to contact me, here’s my wife’s email address.” It’s an offer no one has ever taken, he reports. “It can be done—disappearing for weeks at a time.”

I would be in big trouble if all the emails I received while on PTO were deleted, but the off-hours struggle is real! Rather than going to such an extreme as deleting everything, something I’ve found useful in the past is setting expectations with my team about what communications will be important to send, and which are safe to omit.

Often, teammates will copy you on everything related to the projects you’re working on in an effort to be helpful, so you can track conversations and stay in the loop, but instead it creates a mountain of emails to dig through that you didn’t really need to read. When working on a big project, I find it particularly helpful to receive updates in one big, end-of-week summary email rather than bit by bit. Obviously, different types of work have different needs, but in general, perhaps the best way to find the sweet spot between overwhelming e-mail and “delete it all” is to create more clarity for your team about what you do and don’t need to know while you’re out.

The most dramatic response to “always on” culture is, of course, France’s “right to disconnect” law, which came into effect at the start of this year and requires companies with more than 50 employees to either negotiate off-hours protocols with their employees or publish a charter making explicit what is expected of them outside normal working hours. While most of us don’t have to comply with such a law and possibly never will, clarifying expectations about work communications during off hours and vacation days is a useful step leaders can take to improve their employees’ work-life balance.