After-hours email ban good for productivity, creativity

As an executive coach who consistently encourages her clients to limit email in service of greater focus and productivity, my first reaction to the recent news that French employees will be required to disconnect from email and smartphones after work hours, was a vision of comedian Mike Meyers. Yes, my vivid image was of Meyers in his famous Saturday Night Live skit “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman,” offering that “French toast is neither French nor toasted. Discuss.”

According to Wikipedia, the earliest known reference to French toast is in the Apicius, a Latin cookbook from the 4th or 5th century. In fact, long before the French applied their own appellation of “pain perdu” (which translates to “lost bread”) to stale bread soaked in milk and egg and then fried, they called it “pain a la Romaine,” i.e., Roman bread. Similarly, although France is the latest entity to announce some version of a formal ban on email, they certainly did not invent the idea.

For example, in late 2011, Volkswagen announced that its servers would discontinue emails 30 minutes after the end of an employee’s shifts and resume half an hour before he/she returned to work. The initiative was then adopted by Germany's labor ministry. Dial back the clock to 2007, and you’ll find U.S. Cellular promoting “no email Fridays.”

But back to France, because the myriad predictable jokes at the expense of French workers are misplaced. Contrary to initial media reports, this is not a broadly sweeping new law. Rather, it’s a labor agreement to ensure compliance with minimum rest periods imposed by actual French regulations. It affects only about 250,000 workers in the technology and consulting industries whose contracts are based on days worked and thus not protected by the oft-mocked 35-hour work week limit. In fact, the agreement’s directive against after-hours connection kicks in after employees have worked a 13-hour day … suddenly oh-so-not-French.

The aspect of the agreement that most resonated for me was the obligation for companies to ensure that their employees come under no pressure to be connected 24/7. Top down management support is a prerequisite for any change in the obsessive email behavior that’s damaging our collective well-being and impairing our ability to focus. It’s got to be embraced, enforced, and dare I say – rewarded – across the organization. Only then do individuals stand a chance of successfully modifying their own destructive email behaviors.

I wrote an article called “Workplace Flexibility Trends for 2015” late last year for Chief Executive Officer magazine, in which I forecast that intentional or mandatory technology breaks would be a key element of heightened efforts at improving employee well-being. As nonstop reliance on devices for both onsite and remote workers hastens, so does the unhealthy addiction to them. Intervention is inevitable, and more concerted efforts driven by human resources professionals to arrest further addiction will be commonplace. It’s great to see countries as well as companies jumping on the bandwagon.

Shayna Hughes, CEO of Learning as Leadership, instituted a mere one-week email ban in 2012 and some of the observations she shared in Forbes effectively sum up the benefits: “Many people mistake urgent e-mail activity for productivity, but that stressful busy-ness is invariably tactical and rarely strategic and creative. The decrease in stress from one day to the next was palpable. So was our increase in productivity. This was when I grasped the most damaging cost of thoughtless e-mail: It prevents us from doing our best work.”

Shani Magosky is an executive coach and owner of Vitesse Consulting.

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