Policies That Work: What if You Could Stop Your Email?

Why don’t Americans vacation? Project: Time Off’s Overwhelmed America report found that the number one reason workers find it difficult to take time off is because they are concerned work will pile up.

It’s a reasonable fear. With smartphones in the hands of nearly all workers in America, they can actually see the work piling up when they’re out the office. That’s not a reason to avoid vacation—the health, happiness, productivity, and creativity benefits of time off far outweigh any email headache—but it is a challenge.

Some companies are mitigating email anxiety by offering policies that slow or eliminate email when employees are out.

Mandatory Shutdowns Lead to Email Cut-downs

What would happen if your interoffice email stopped? The lion’s share of my email traffic is from people within my company. When we close down over the holidays, my email grinds to a halt. I’ve also noticed emails are cut by at least two-thirds on days we have staff outings.

TED, the idea-generating non-profit made famous by its short video talks, has been closing for two weeks every summer since 2009, going so far as to shut down phones, email, and even the office Wi-Fi.

“Our shared vacation time is a little hack that solves the problem of an office full of Type-As with raging FOMO,” Editor Emily McManus writes on TED.com. “We avoid the fear of missing out by making sure that very little is going on.”

It makes good business sense. “We all return feeling rested and invigorated,” said June Cohen, TED’s executive producer. “What’s good for the team is good for business.”

Self-Destructing Email

As P:TO wrote about earlier this year, Arianna Huffington went beyond the traditional “out of office” message for Huffington Post employees with her email detox program. Employees have the option of using a tool that deletes any incoming work email. Senders receive a reply thanking them for their message and informing them that the recipient is on vacation and to reconnect upon their return.

“Adopting an ‘always-on’ lifestyle and ignoring these natural rhythms of work and rest comes at a cost, both for an individual's well-being and productivity, and for a company's bottom line,” wrote Carolyn Gregoire of Huffington Post. “But when we do take the time to unplug, the results can be nothing short of transformative.”

It doesn’t mean there won’t be work to do upon return, but it does mean unnecessary “CC” line emails and promotional junk go the way of the dinosaur. When employees come back, the important emails will come in and—bonus for the sender—they’ll be more refreshed and energized to respond.

Formal Policy or Not, Be Mindful

As someone tortured by my phone's little red circle announcing how many unread emails I have, Huffington Post's policy is very attractive. While I repeatedly remind my team that we don’t save lives, I also repeatedly ignore my own advice. Do as I say, not as I do, right?

I’m lucky to work with a great team that does their able best to reduce the email clutter for employees who are out of the office. They’re also very talented individuals who can keep things running smoothly when someone is out. With that in mind, for the first time ever, I unplugged when I was on vacation a few weeks ago. I told just about everyone within earshot (including a befuddled grocery cashier who didn’t have or want my email address) that I would not be checking in while I was on vacation. Guess what? The world kept spinning.

You don’t need a special policy to be mindful. What TED and Huffington Post do works well, but simply being conscientious coworkers can help alleviate our "fear" of vacation. Next time someone you work with is out of the office, hold on hitting send—it might even be a good excuse to talk to them in person (gasp) when they return.

This post is the third in a series on policies that work. Previous posts in the series include:
What Are the Limits of Unlimited Vacation?
Is Work Martyr Syndrome a Danger to Your Business?

September 17, 2015