Out of Office in an Always-On World: 4 Tips for Managing Email
September 23, 2014 | Business and Careers
Ah, France: the land of wine, cheese, love … and a ban on after-hours work email? Not quite.
When an article in the British press incorrectly reported that the French government had signed into law a new rule banning employees from checking work emails after 6 p.m., it set off a flurry of debate around the issue of work/life balance. This became something of a storm in a teacup since it turns out that no such legislation exists.
What actually happened was that French union leaders and employers in the high-tech and consulting field signed an agreement protecting the rights of so-called “autonomous employees” (workers whose contracts are based on days worked, not hours) to receive the full minimum rest periods already mandated by France’s strict employment regulations. The law isn’t new, but as union leader Michel de La Force commented in the French edition of The Local, the agreement was forged to help ensure that “an employee who does not open his emails on his time off cannot be criticized.”
The French are not alone in worrying about how cellphones and other portable devices are exposing workers to ever-longer hours. At the beginning of 2012, Volkswagen reached an agreement with a portion of its German workforce to stop the email server from sending emails to employees with smartphones 30 minutes after their shift ended and to restore service a half hour before work began the next day.
The average American works about 7.9 hours a day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2014 American Time Use Survey. But that figure doesn’t take into account the time many spend reading and responding to emails from home. The Center for Creative Leadership issued a white paper in August 2013, Always On. Never Done?, that found that executives, managers and professionals (EMPs) who carry employer-provided smartphones interact with the office a whopping 13.5 hours each business day. Assuming they sleep an average 7.5 hours a night (the amount recommended by experts to manage stress), this leaves just three hours a day during the week to do everything else.
Maybe Volkswagen and the French unions are onto something after all?
Putting in place rules about after-hours email access may please those who prefer to segment their work and non-work lives. But it’s likely to frustrate the nearly eight in ten (79 percent) U.S. workers who, in an April 2014 Gallup poll, said that the ability to stay in touch remotely with the office is a positive development.
If tuning out on email isn’t an option or even a goal, what can you do to tame its impact on your time and energy? Here are four tips for managing a bulging inbox.
1. Fend off superfluous email. An obvious way to reduce the time you spend on email is to unsubscribe to e-newsletters (websites such as unroll.me make this easy to do) and turn off notifications from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Another is to set clearer parameters around how often you want to receive “FYI” emails from colleagues and direct reports. However, one of the most effective ways to reduce the flow of email to your inbox is to control how often you send them yourself. To cut down on email, don’t hit “Reply All” unless everyone on your team needs to hear what you have to say. Similarly, resist the temptation to handle everything with email. Instead, handle big decisions and complex issues face to face or by phone. That way, you’ll avoid a tsunami of back-and-forth emails.
2. Develop a system and stick to it. Productivity expert Ann McGurty is known for responding to every email she receives within 24 hours, but she doesn’t let email bog her down. Instead, she has a system that she developed to help corporate executives and their assistants avoid the time drain that email can quickly become. “Each time I check email, I start by deleting anything I can, whether it’s spam or whatever. I sort the remaining email by subject so that I’m only looking at the last message in a conversation. That way, if the problem is solved, I’m not wasting time reading the entire thread,” says McGurty. “Next, I reply to any messages that can be handled immediately. Then I tag the remaining email for further action or file them into appropriate folders.” For those who prefer not to deal with organizing their inboxes, there are email management services such as SaneBox that automatically prioritize email for you.
3. Give yourself a clean slate. If your inbox is overloaded with email, getting email under control can feel overwhelming. McGurty suggests you clear the decks by creating a new folder called “Old Inbox” and put your existing email in it. That way you’ll be able to handle new email more easily while still having access to the email that piled up before.
4. Take an email sabbatical. Do you get antsy when you can’t check email? It might help to take a break from email for a day or two. A 2012 study, A Pace Not Dictated By Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email, found that employees who were cut off from email for a few days engaged in more face-to-face interactions with colleagues and reported that they “multitasked less, could focus for longer periods of time and felt less stressed.”
Another suggestion McGurty offered for limiting email access after hours: “Don’t bring smartphones and other devices, including charging stations, into your bedroom. That way you won’t be tempted in the middle of the night to check email.” Sounds like an easier solution than moving to France.