Switched Off

I saw that Volkswagen have forcibly limited the time during which employees (although not senior management) can receive emails. This radical step was taken to redress the work-life balance, to reduce the pressure on employees to be online and answering emails 24/7. It was negotiated between the works council and the company, and a spokesmanĀ  agrees that it’s not for every company.

I read the story back in December when I was on the other side of the world with a time difference of 12 hours. Although I was on holiday I was following a couple of issues that needed to be solved by the end of the year that I’d had to delegate. So I was checking my emails first thing in my morning, which was after the close of business back in Amsterdam. My first thought was therefore that it was particularly unhelpful to anyone travelling in different time zones. A colleague pointed out that imposing this limit would mean she’d stay at the office longer, whereas now she has dinner with her kids and then answers emails once they’re in bed.

I think it’s a step backwards; email, blackberries, remote access are all tools to allow us to work more flexibly. Cutting them off seems to defeat the purpose.

I do recognise the problem, it’s really easy to become addicted to the fast response. It’s easy to substitute email for communication. However email is convenient, it’s less disruptive than a phone call – and the employees of Volkswagen can still receive phone calls.

A better solution would be to implement an email charter in your company, setting out how you expect email to be used. If you can’t imagine what that means don’t worry – there’s a handy one already made for you via Chris Anderson of TED fame.

The Charter has rules that are pretty obvious and simple; respect the recipient’s time, promote clarity, don’t cc endlessly.

I’d add one – model the behaviour you want, particularly if you’re a team leader. Respect the recipient’s own personal time, don’t send an email on a day off that doesn’t need urgent attention – or if you do make sure “for Monday” is in the subject line.

We get to use the tools, they don’t rule us.

An Email Charter

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  • Ever had a day when 5pm rolled around and you felt you hadn’t done any work but answer emails?
  • Ever read through an email and not understood what the sender wanted you to do?
  • Thought an email contained an important attachment, only to find it was an image in the sender’s logo?

I’m guessing we’ve all had the aboveĀ  frustrations – and worse – with our email. I’ve written before on some strategies to up productivity in relation to email. Oatmeal took a more humorous look at bad email behaviour with the “If you do this in an email I hate you“, prompting wry chuckles as it was emailed around the world.

Now Chris from TED has taken a more radical approach to the whole email problem.

He points that it is a scarcity issue – scarcity of attention, and that an email may cost more attention to resolve than it takes to create it; particularly when you take all the cc’s into account.

So he’s proposing an email charter, that we can all sign up to to curb our own email excesses. Some are known – limit the use of cc, keep it short, avoid responding when you feel angry. But he also proposes using some standard abbreviations, for example eom for “end of message” at the end of the subject line when there is no text inside the email.

There are good ideas and a range of comments – join the discussion.

Image Breathe while reading your email! / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0