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]