Katey Klippel makes a point of keeping her smartphone in her bag when she returns home from a hard day at the management consulting firm where she works in Washington.
That way, she can better practice what her employer preaches and stop checking her e-mails after hours.
“Before, I would take my computer home,” Klippel, 26, said. “I would pull up my e-mails to check things, or knock off a few extra e-mails while watching TV or cooking dinner. I don’t do that anymore.”
With technological progress shaking up the work-life balance like never before, some employers are taking action.
In September, Klippel’s employer, The Advisory Board Company, imposed an “e-mail moratorium” over the three-day Labor Day weekend on its 1,850 employees from the top brass down.
“I found myself looking at my iPhone and ready to respond, but I told myself, ‘No, let it go,’” said chief executive Robert Musslewhite, who has since issued guidelines to curb after-hours e-mailing.
E-mail has no doubt helped to speed up communication, but Musslewhite sees a “growing sentiment” that its growth has crossed a stage where it is now cutting into productivity.
“That’s the part we really want to tackle,” he said. “There’s some part of e-mail that has gone too far and that is now impeding productivity.”
The Advisory Board’s guidelines seem sensible enough, such as limiting the number of addresses of any given e-mail, summing up the message in the subject line, and opting for instant messaging.
Juggling e-mails or taking phone calls after hours adds up to an extra month-and-a-half of work every year, according to a study by software developer Good Technology.
Outside the US, some major corporations such as French IT services group Atos have virtually banned e-mailing once employees have clocked out for the day.
“There is a growing sentiment that e-mail is not very productive, and actually decreases productivity,” said Gwanhoo Lee, an associate professor of information technology at American University in Washington.
“A typical manager receives hundreds of e-mails a day, and that consumes a substantial amount of work hours,” he says.
Some organizations are trying to move away from e-mail in favor of instant messaging or social media, added Lee, who has worked with several major corporations.
Nevertheless, “many organizations are still expecting their employees to check their e-mails even over the weekend or when out of town,” he said.
According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, hardly one company in five has an e-mail policy — and out of those, only one in four aims to strike a balance between professional and private lives.
Judith Glaser, founder of consulting firm Benchmark Communications, said many employees are consumed by e-mails because they are driven by a need to feel part of an organization.
Workers not copied on an e-mail, she said, may suspect an indirect signal from their bosses that “you are not important anymore in the decision process,” she said.
The secret is to discuss the expectations of each employee and enable them to plan to take time off, free of e-mail, “without being stressed,” she said.
For Klippel, the ability to draw a firm line between her working and personal life has been a very positive change. Now she can go out with friends or cook dinner without interruption.
“If you’re sending e-mails in the middle of the night, people start to worry about you,” she said. “It’s encouragement for you to shut down.”