Email considered harmful

Clive Thompson writes about the growing body of evidence about the negative impact of electronic messaging on workplace productivity. Not only has the smartphone extended the working week to something like 75 hours for the US workers in a recent survey, but some daring experiments suggest that when limits are put on electronic messaging (for example, a ban on out-of-hours emailing), that productivity and quality of work soars -- along with the happiness and quality of life of workers (these two phenomena are related). Some businesses have banned electronic messaging altogether, requiring workers to physically traverse their workplaces and exchange vibrating air molecules in order to coordinate their activities.

Consider the study run by Harvard professor Leslie Perlow. A few years ago, she had been examining the workload of a team at the Boston Consulting Group. High-paid consultants are the crystal-meth tweakers of the always-on world: "My father told me that it took a wedding to actually have a conversation with me," one of them told Perlow.

"You're constantly checking your BlackBerry to see if somebody needs you. You're home but you're not home," Deborah Lovich, the former BCG partner who led the team, told me. And they weren't happy about it: 51 percent of the consultants in Perlow's study were checking their email "continuously" while on vacation.

Perlow suggested they carve out periods of "predictable time off"—evening and weekend periods where team members would be out of bounds. Nobody was allowed to ping them. The rule would be strictly enforced, to ensure they could actually be free of that floating "What if someone's contacting me?" feeling.

The results were immediate and powerful. The employees exhibited significantly lower stress levels. Time off actually rejuvenated them: More than half said they were excited to get to work in the morning, nearly double the number who said so before the policy change. And the proportion of consultants who said they were satisfied with their jobs leaped from 49 percent to 72 percent. Most remarkably, their weekly work hours actually shrank by 11 percent—without any loss in productivity. "What happens when you constrain time?" Lovich asks. "The low-value stuff goes away," but the crucial work still gets done.

Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation? [Clive Thompson/Mother Jones]

(Thanks, Mike!)

Notable Replies

  1. Or maybe employees could grow a pair and just not answer the work phone when not at work, as well as not check facebook all the time while at work.
    I will cop to being in IT and have had to be on call but luckily it was not 24/7 as I was on a big team (we admin a whole lot of servers which sadly makes for lots of interrupted nights when on call) but that also was something that I considered before saying yes to the job so I knew the odd 2am work would happen and the regular late night patch party. But even though I work via VPN unless I am in a groove and getting a batch of things done for the most part oh look 5pm time to log out and not pay attention to the work pc. Unless you are in a job where you have to fix broken things at 2am you don't need to be checking for an email from the boss all the time when you are not in the office.

  2. I love email. My favourite means of communication. Means I can mostly do my job without having to talk to anyone, or, worse still, having to use the telephone. Christ, I hate those things.

    That said, I am glad I'm not in a job that requires me to have a Blackberry any more. I ended up checking it compulsively. It was useful, but there's a lot to be said to finishing work at the end of the day and that being that.

  3. One of my favorite things about email is how I can ignore it for extended periods of time.

  4. " growing body of evidence about the negative impact of electronic messaging on workplace productivity"

    Lol. Yeah lets go back to typing one copy on a typewriter, making more on a mimeograph and walking them to everyone's desk where they had no real choice but to sit there and read it.

    Email has cut hours of pointless work out of our weeks. The fact that work and leisure are available everywhere and some employers and employees have trouble balancing things is something different, however related.

  5. I feel like the correct answer is "I don't know, why don't you tell me what it said?"

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