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Dec 08, 2014

The chokehold of workplace technology

By: Paul Ebeltoft

My HR professional spouse and I have noticed something about vacations and holidays:

  • Other people don’t care that you are not at work. They want their problem handled now.
  • People will play “gotcha” while you are gone, ignoring your most ardent out-of-office reply, by sending an email or leaving a voicemail that says something like “I am calling to tell you that I will [fill this part in yourself] at the end of the day … unless I hear from you.”
  • When you return from your short hiatus, your inbox is full, your voicemail runneth over and whatever you have gained in refreshed spirit is blasted by the extra work needed to catch up.

My child-bride and I are accumulating years of bitter experience and a book-full of examples of how one’s life, not just one’s vacation, can be overrun by workplace demands. Not too long ago I received a text at 9:42 PM. It was from a client demanding that a document she was emailing me be reviewed with comments to be in her hand by 7:00 AM the next day. Oh, did I say that it was Friday evening when I received the text?

What is true

We all know this don’t we? Email, texting and easily accessible voicemail are great. You can work flexibly. You can be productive anywhere. You can keep up with rapidly developing issues at your workplace. With a quick response you can show your bosses (or your clients) that you are on top of their issues and available to help.

But don’t we all know this too? Email, texting, and easily accessible voicemail will blight vacations, funerals, precious time with family and beautiful scenery. They will increase your stress, will create legal issues for your company (see my February 2014 article, Email impairment: A potentially harmful condition and my June 2011 article, There's An App For That), will cause relationship issues and will chain you to a 24/7 workplace where the squeakiest wheel gets attended to while projects of long-standing molder behind lines of email that must be answered.

Sheer human decency

The venerable New York Times said it best in an opinion piece published on August 28, 2014 (right before Labor Day weekend), “[A]s a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the chokehold of [workplace technology] is a laudable goal.” What can you, the HR professional do to help achieve this goal?

Consider prohibiting after-hours emails. Start with what you can control. The effect of after-hours emails is a perceived after-hours obligation to respond and … more emails. To help spike this effect, the global public relations firm of Edelman created a “7-to-7” rule that strongly discourages employees from emailing one another before 7 AM and after 7 PM. The policy apparently works.

Set a goal of reducing electronic communication. Another step your company can take to loosen the electronic stranglehold is to limit “ordinary” electronic communication. Inter-company email is great when a variety of people need to know the same thing. Inter-company email is great if a shared record of decision-making is required. It is not good when it substitutes for personal contact, involves “cc-ing” outside of the decision-making team, or is used simply as a means to round-robin discussion about minutiae.

A respected consultant with whom I have worked suggests that corporations set email and text reduction goals for inter-company communication, shooting for a 50% reduction over a set timeframe and, possibly another 50% after that. Does this amount of traffic reduction scare you? Where it has been tried, it did not result in the end of corporate business as we know it. Instead, The New York Times found that “[employees] start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly, so they don’t metastasize into email threads the length of War and Peace. This is basic behavioral economics. When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable — and employees become more mindful of how and when they write.”

Consider adopting a company-wide “holiday-mode” email policy. Addressing internal emails is one thing, but you can’t control everyone. Or can you? According to an August 13, 2014 Financial Times story, reported the next day in The Atlantic, Daimler’s “German employees can now choose to have all their incoming emails automatically deleted when they are on holiday so they do not return to a bulging in-box. The sender is notified by the “Mail on Holiday” assistant that the email has not been received and is invited to contact a nominated substitute instead. Employees can therefore return from their summer vacation to an empty inbox. ‘Our employees should relax on holiday and not read work-related emails,’ said Wilfried Porth, board member for human resources. ‘With Mail on Holiday they start back after the holidays with a clean desk. There is no traffic jam in their inbox. That is an emotional relief.’”

“But there is no one who can do my job while I am gone,” you will say. Should that be true, your employer will need to make decisions about whose email can be shut off and whose cannot. But perhaps discussing this in the context of your company’s “Mail on Holiday” initiative will motivate your employer to job-share more effectively. Either result is a good one. Again, quoting The New York Times, “If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely.”

Consider setting up a no-response zone. If your company can’t go as far as the Daimler model, perhaps your company could create electronic rule that would respond to non-personal texts or emails with a statement that responses will not be provided outside of normal working hours. Had my law firm done so, the 9:42 PM Friday night texter would have received a kind reminder that I would respond on Monday.

Create a known environment of separation. Regardless of how your company decides to treat electronic communications, your Company must tell their employees and those with whom their employees communicate electronically exactly what is important and what is not. Otherwise every text, every telephone message and every email seems to bear equal weight. Consider creating a “How I Will Respond” link in your signature line (and out-of-office reply) which will open your company policy on responding to electronic communications. Perhaps the policy will state something like:

“You may not get a response to your email, text or voicemail as fast as you might like. This is because my company allows me to decide how and when to respond. So that I can give everyone the time and careful consideration they deserve, here is how I treat electronic communications:

  • The most important communications I receive, and that I take anywhere and respond to any time, are from parents, spouse/partner, adult children and from those taking charge of my minor children. (Young children, consultants claim, are not capable of electronic restraint so your company’s policy must ask, the thinking goes, that employees ignore these juvenile technology junkies during work.)
  • The second-most-important communication I receive is a text or email from my direct superiors or from my peers within my decision-making team. I stop what I am doing to read these and respond immediately, if necessary.
  • Thereafter, everything else is either work-related or relational.
    o I respond to work-related communications only during my company’s ordinary business hours. I respond to them in the order of their importance, not when they are received. (Any “we respond to all emails within 24 hours” or similar policies must be repealed if you adopt this plan.)
    o Relational emails, texts and voicemails such as those from my friends or about personal matters, appointments or the like, I will respond to only when I am on a break or after-hours.
  • I do not respond to either work or relational electronic communication while I am on vacation, unless a true emergency.”

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Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the December, 2014 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.