Taking a Break From E-mail

One company’s experiment with “E-mail Free Fridays” offers some lessons in how to manage the flood of often unnecessary messages.

Productivity likely did decrease a bit during the first several weeks after PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services banned most e-mails on Fridays, says Lisa Williams, vice president of human resources at the Alpharetta, Georgia-based company.

    Why? Employees actually were talking to one another and their clients “live,” either in person or via telephone. “They would say, ‘I have been e-mailing back and forth with Mike for years and this was the first time I had talked to him,’ ” Williams recalls. “They began to realize that people really had personality. All of a sudden they became real people.”

    The feasibility of such e-mail-free experiments has garnered mixed reviews, as some companies have attempted full or partial abstinence as one strategy to handle information overload. The hurdles can be immediate, starting with human nature and today’s hyper-competitive global environment. E-mail is an easy way to provide accountability to bosses; disconnected employees also worry about missing a crucial communication.

    “Everybody would like there to be less e-mail going around,” says Nathan Zeldes, a principal engineer at Intel and president of the newly formed Information Overload Research Group. “They just don’t want to be the first one to cut back.”

    But officials at PBD, a third-party fulfillment company that contracts with clients to ship orders to their customers, believe that a stricter e-mail diet can be instituted if the approach is reinforced from the senior managers on down, Williams says. The company, with about 350 employees located in several offices, began its own homegrown pilot when its chief executive, Scott Dockter, recognized his own e-mail dependency, she says. Dockter was firing off e-mails to his administrative assistant, sitting just feet away.

    Typically companies that attempt e-mail-free stretches don’t ban the practice outright, reserving an exception for urgent situations. PBD officials adopted a two-pronged approach. For internal e-mails, they asked employees to pick up the phone, or walk down the hallway, rather than e-mail co-workers on Fridays. For external e-mails, such as to customers, the employee was encouraged to only use e-mail if the business couldn’t be handled any other way, Williams says.

    Nearly two years into the initiative, Williams reports that e-mail traffic has declined internally by about 90 percent on Fridays. The company’s system tracks about 1,200 e-mails sent internally on a typical weekday, compared with 10 to 100 e-mails on Fridays.

    External e-mails have been more difficult to curtail, since the company e-mails order and shipment confirmations at the rate of roughly 5,000 a day. Still, Friday’s external traffic also is down, with about 6,500 e-mails, compared with 7,800 on other weekdays, Williams says.

    To shut down Friday’s e-mail spigot, PBD educated employees through fliers and postings on the employee-accessible intranet, Williams says. They discussed e-mail etiquette and e-mail clogging pitfalls, such as carelessly using the “Reply all” button.

    Managers changed their own practices, posting their Friday reports on the employee-accessible intranet, rather than sending them to one another, which tended to spawn related e-mail discussions. They also reassured subordinates that not every exchange had to be documented. “There was that fear of not being able to cover yourself,” she says.

    Despite PBD’s success, managers still have to periodically remind employees of the Friday policy, Williams says. Long term, though, she believes the payoff has been the cementing of stronger business relationships.

    “It created that two-way communication,” she says. Now if someone’s miffed about the tone of an incoming e-mail, they might do something revolutionary: pick up the phone.