Would a weekly day without e-mail make you more productive?

Are you inundated with irrelevant e-mail every day? Most of us are, with dozens or hundreds of messages that we don't need to see and don't have time to deal with.

More from Daniel Patrick Forrester

A leader's guide to creative thinking

In his new book "Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization," Daniel Patrick Forrester describes the experiences of a company that declared internal e-mail off-limits for one day a week. Read the excerpt from his book and then tell us if you think this would be a good idea — or whether it's even possible — for your organization.

("Consider" was published by Palgrave MacMillan. Copyright 2011 by Daniel Patrick Forrester. Used by permission.)

Can you imagine even one day at the office without e-mail? The CEO of PBD, a small inventory management and shipping company, did just that. In 2006, Scott Dockter finally had enough of the barrage of e-mail that had built up inside his 30-year-old family-owned business. He stepped away from his desk one afternoon and laughed aloud because he had just e-mailed his assistant for the third time on a routine matter, yet she was sitting only 20 feet away from him.

About the same time, Dockter was shocked to discover that one of his colleagues had nearly 200 e-mails awaiting him after spending a full day interacting with clients. He thought about time and how he allocated it and what role e-mail played in taking him away from the people side of the business. When the weekly e-mail load of divisional reports clogged his inbox on Friday, as it always did, he knew he needed to do something. He told me, “Some people would hit a ‘reply all’ on a comment they might have about something within that report, and it was just generating a tremendous amount of follow-up e-mails.”

Dockter mentioned his concern to the head of human resources, and she told him jokingly about a “national no e-mail day in August” that had been proposed in a news article. PBD had a culture where Fridays were more casual; Dockter thought that such a program could “lighten the mood a little” and tackle the e-mail deluge. Such a simple policy shift could force people to stop and rethink their relationship with the technology and one another. He thought to himself that, at least for one day a week, staff could get to know each other again and talk face-to-face when possible, or connect via phone if they were in different cities.

He told me, “We were not going to fire anybody or anything drastic. We were just going to say, ‘No e-mails on Fridays. Period.’” The only exception to the rule was for external e-mail: If a client e-mailed someone inside the company on that Friday, then a PBD employee could respond. All other e-mail traffic generated from within the company was strictly forbidden.

On the first PBD “no e-mail Friday,” it appeared as if the experiment was going to be a great success. Traffic was down, and people seemed to speak to one another versus relying on e-mail. Yet what actually happened was that employees wrote e-mails to internal colleagues and then queued them to be sent on Saturday morning at 12:01 a.m. As has been discovered with other organizations attempting this approach, the traffic nearly crashed the servers inside the company.

Dockter recalled, “We got an initial laugh out of that, but we were very frustrated that people would see it that way.”

The implementation of the new policy actually revealed that people were doing a ton of work on weekends and that e-mail time was eating into people’s personal time. For a family-run business that encouraged a separation between home and work, Dockter felt such behavior ran counter to the values of the company. He stuck to the "no e-mail Friday" idea, and over subsequent weeks, employees took the challenge more seriously. He was determined to create some boundaries...between employees’ home and work time, as well as help the company establish a new hierarchy of communications.

He was amazed at the reactions of some people, who resisted the very idea of a day without e-mail. Dockter discovered that employees were deeply coupled with the technology and the connectivity it affords. He recalled, “I had people personally mad at me because they said they couldn’t work without e-mail and that they could not generate what they needed to get done.”

All employees were encouraged to give it a real try. Over a short period of time, something unexpected began to happen. “After about four to five weeks, I all of a sudden was considered a miracle worker. I had basically come up with a way for people to get to know each other, to solve things quicker, to shorten people’s workdays, to make them more efficient and productive. I didn’t want to take personal responsibility. I was as guilty as anybody in generating e-mail traffic,” Dockter said.

The change was under way, [and] e-mail use on Fridays dramatically dropped. In fact, e-mail traffic on other days of the week began to decline as well. Clients even heard about the initiative, and while they admitted they could not do it themselves, they e-mailed PBD less and contacted staff directly more. Buoyed by the results, the company rapidly conducted an analysis of what was being e-mailed internally (on any given workweek), [and] company leadership determined that 80 percent of what was being sent internally was unnecessary and wasting many people’s time. Ten percent of the e-mail traffic was really useful and conducive to making decisions, while the other 10 percent was “to be determined” in terms of its usefulness. They calculated that prior to implementing the no e-mail rule, employees spent over half of their workday simply reading and responding to e-mail that was of no real value to serving clients.

It’s been three years since the no e-mail policy went into effect, and PBD has dramatically decreased the volume of e-mail traffic without losing any efficiency or productivity. In the last year, results have leveled off. E-mail has been put in its place through an intervention that forced people to step back from the way they were doing things. Dockter believes the policy has actually changed the culture of the company for the better.

For example, the service metrics in 2009, including accuracy and volume in shipping, were at their all-time best. In addition, the company was honored as one of the “Best Places to Work in Atlanta," and that, too, has some connection to the policy as retention and morale have also hit their highest levels in PBD’s history.

While the value of e-mail is that it enables collaboration, Dockter believes that the experiment proves that its use must be accompanied by doubling-down on human connection. It’s through the moments of connection that ideas are hatched, improvements are suggested, and client problems are solved. Unless you step away from the behavior of incessant connectivity, you simply can’t break away to think about what matters the most. PBD will never go back to what they had. Dockter concluded, “You will not be a good teammate at PBD if you only use e-mail.”

Three years after the policy was implemented, people now step back and ask basic questions before they transmit something electronically — questions such as “Is that really good for e-mail or can it be posted to an intranet?” It’s an ongoing process in which they question the use of technology.

It has freed up time for thinking and reflection. Dockter said, “With less e-mail to contend with, our people are solving things in new ways, which actually gives them the time necessary to be a great manager, to be learning on their own and to be innovating ideas about how PBD is going to continue to be better at what we do.”

Dockter also believes that the whole examination of the nature of e-mail within the firm has had an impact on the company’s bottom line. He says, “In the last three years, we have had our most profitable and highest growth rates in our history. Even with the seasonality of our business, we have performed this way with the same or less people. We have a kind of a mantra of ‘how are we going to get better’ as a company. No e-mail Fridays and just less e-mail in general has helped make us a better company.”

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 21, 2011

Where I work we try to document everything and use email to both transmit our documents as well as to document our messages. If it was not for email, we would be wasting a lot of our time as well as either paper or CD's to transfer our documents. We do a lot of document reviews and sending these via email saves both time and paper. When our email goes down, productivity also goes down for most in our office. If we had a no-email day it would hurt us more than help us. As far as worthless email goes, it only takes a few seconds to see that it is worthless and to delete it. I would rather have that than worthless junk paper mail.

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