Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com
In a paper published last week, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and co-author Stephen Turban set out to measure the impact of open offices on how employees communicate in the workplace, using sociometric devices to track employee interactions at Fortune 500 companies that were transitioning to open office plans. Quartz’s Lila MacLellan explains their counterintuitive findings:
In two studies, the researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72% less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.
These employees were emailing and IM-ing much more often, however, sending 56% more email messages to other participants in the study. This is how employees sought the privacy that their cubicle walls once provided, the authors reason. IM messages soared, both in terms of messages sent and total word count, by 67% and 75%, respectively.
Bernstein’s paper adds to the growing body of research questioning the value of open-plan offices, which came into vogue in the US over the past decade as part of an effort to make the office environment more interactive and collaborative. Critiques of the practice usually focus on the distractions and lack of privacy an open office provides; the proliferation of open offices in the US has even been suggested as a possible factor contributing to the spread of the flu virus in American workplaces during winter.
Other research, like Bernstein’s, has found that open offices don’t improve employee communication as advertised, and can even have the opposite effect. A major study in Australia in 2016, for example, found that workers in open offices form poorer relationships with their colleagues and managers, making fewer friends at work and seeing their supervisors less supportive.
New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal has introduced a bill that would “make it unlawful for private employers in the city of New York to require employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours.” The proposed law would apply to private organizations with more than ten employees and would fine violators $250 for each instance of noncompliance. The rationale behind the bill is to combat the high incidence of overwork among New York City residents, the New York Times’ Jonathan Wolfe notes:
The average New Yorker already works 49 hours and 8 minutes a week, longer than their counterparts in the next 29 largest cities in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the city comptroller. And that’s not including hours spent emailing at home. A 2017 study found that, on average, workers spend an extra eight hours a week sending email after work. Research has also shown that people who responded to work communications after 9 p.m. had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day.
“When you don’t have recovery and time off, it leads to more stress and ultimately burnout and exhaustion,” said Larissa K. Barber, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University who conducts research on work-life balance and coined a term for the urge to respond: “telepressure.”
The law is modeled after the “right to disconnect” law that came into effect in France last year, which mandates that organizations of more than 50 people agree with their employees on hours when they are not required to perform online work tasks like checking email. Modern telecommunications indeed pose a challenge in terms of work-life balance, as employees who work at all hours run a greater risk of burnout and stress.
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.
It’s news to nobody that email can feel like the bane of white-collar existence, consuming our work lives even as it distresses and distracts us. According to some new research, however, not all forms of email stress are alike. Amanda MacMillan at Time highlights a psychological study from OPP, a research branch of the Myers-Briggs company, which found that people with different Myers-Briggs personality profiles use email differently, and find different aspects of it stressful:
Based on the full results, OPP developed personalized email management tips for eight unique personality types. For example, “activists” (people who are extroverted and sensing) should remember to make sure they send all of the emails they start in a day. “Conservers” (introverted and sensing) should turn off email notifications when they need to focus and concentrate, and are encouraged to follow up with people when they don’t respond to initial emails.
Ransomware is a form of cyberattack in which the attacker encrypts certain files on a user’s computer, locks them out of vital programs, or freezes their desktop, then demands payment to undo the damage—hence the name. HR professionals are particularly vulnerable to this form of malware as their jobs often require them to open emails and attachments from unknown sources. At ZDNet, Danny Palmer warns of a new ransomware program known as GoldenEye, a variant of the Petya family of ransomware, that exploits this vulnerability by disguising the malicious program as an innocuous job application:
The initial email contains a short message from the fake applicant, directing the victim to two attachments. The first is a covering letter within a PDF which doesn’t actually contain any malicious software, but is intended to reassure the target that they’re dealing with a standard job application. However, the second attachment is an Excel file supposedly containing an application form but which in fact contains the malicious GoldenEye payload.
Upon opening the Excel attachment, the target is presented with a document which claims to be ‘Loading’ and requires them to enable Macros to view the file. When Macros are enabled, GoldenEye executes a code and begins encrypting the users’ files before presenting them with a ransom note using yellow text — rather than the red or green used by other Petya variants.
The new ransomware campaign comes at a time when this type of attack is on the rise. Last month, Computerworld’s Lucian Constantin reported that encryption-based ransomware attacks were becoming more common and that criminals were increasingly targeting enterprises rather than individuals:
Forward-thinking employers everywhere are increasingly concerned about protecting their employees’ work-life balance and avoiding an “always on” culture of constant connection, in order to prevent burnout, attrition, and problems to motivation and productivity—but only in France is the issue of being addressed head-on with legislation. Last May, the French government put forward a suite of reforms to its famously strict labor regulations, most of which were designed to relax rules around the work hours and employers’ ability to hire and fire, but which also established a “right to disconnect” that would force organizations of more than 50 people to agree with their employees on hours when they are not required to perform online work tasks like checking email.
The law went into effect in the new year, Agence France-Presse reports, so French companies must now either negotiate off-hours protocols with their employees or publish a charter making explicit what is expected of them outside normal working hours:
French newspaper Libération praised the move in an editorial on Friday, saying the law was needed because “employees are often judged on their commitment to their companies and their availability”. Some large groups such as Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany or nuclear power company Areva and insurer Axa in France have already taken steps to limit out-of-hours messaging to reduce burnout among workers. Some measures include cutting email connections in the evening and weekends or even destroying emails automatically that are sent to employees while they are on holiday.
A and N photography/Shutterstock
A sponsored study from Adobe looks at the dominance of email in our work lives and finds that it’s pretty darn all-consuming:
The report shows that people constantly check their personal and work email, with smartphones overtaking computers as the device consumers use most regularly to check email. Time spent checking email increased 17 percent Year-over-Year (YoY) and people expect email will remain the preferred way of communicating at work in five years. Email in the workplace is becoming less formal and more brief, with expectations of quick responses increasing. Nearly 70 percent check email while watching TV and 45 percent while in the bathroom.
“This survey underpins that email is here to stay in our personal lives and in the workplace. The next generation of workers expect fast responses to email and brevity, mirroring interactions in their personal lives and their shorter attention span,” said Kristin Naragon, director of Email Solutions, Adobe Campaign. “Marketers must adapt their approach to address email behaviors and avoid adding to the noise of the inbox. This means fewer emails and ensuring those sent are mobile-optimized, personalized and contextual to offer the best possible digital experience.”
The study also touches on the “always-on” work culture that email helps sustain:
Almost one-half of the people surveyed expect a response to email within less than an hour at work. Expectations are dramatically higher with older millennials (25-34): over one-fourth expect email responses within a few minutes. On the weekend, people send 19 work emails and read 29 emails on average. 79 percent admit to checking work email on vacation and nearly one-fourth divulge that they frequently or constantly check email on vacation. Smartphones are the primary device on which millennials check email (90 percent for ages 18-24; 88 percent for ages 25-34).
And emoji use is also on the rise:
Another Adobe survey in August, of 400 US professionals, found something similar: Respondents said they spent an average of 6.3 hours a day on email (3.2 hours on work email and 3.1 hours on personal emails), and the vast majority said they checked work email at home and personal email at work. The Atlantic‘s James Hamblin suggests a way to push back against this time-sink. Brevity, he proposes, should be the cardinal rule of writing emails—dispense with formalities and keep it short and sweet: