Workplace communication largely reflects what’s going on in the work environment and it impacts employees well beyond the office. German automaker, Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, recently declared a policy that will shock many Americans. All employees, at all levels, now have the option of having emails received while they are out of the office on vacation automatically deleted. Senders then receive a computer-generated message suggesting they either send their message later or write to peers who are in the office. The rationale: employees do not return from what is supposed to be a relaxing vacation to a barrage of emails. What a brilliant policy!
Emails are the mainstay of U.S. business. The average worker spends 13 hours per week sending email. Employees check email an average of 36 times per hour when at work. In North America alone, workers spend approximately 75 billion hours on email per year. Is it any wonder many Americans don’t take their vacation allotment? Nobody wants to deal with a mounting and often times unmanageable number of emails while away on what should be a relaxing vacation week. And I say, during the week because Americans typically only take one week of vacation at a time. Can you imagine being away for weeks at a time, as do many Europeans who have several weeks of vacation per year?
During my time in corporate America, I tried two different approaches to enjoying my vacation and being a responsible executive. One was to check email daily while away. However, I would inevitably respond to messages, which hindered my ability to relax and truly disconnect from work. After returning to work feeling only somewhat relaxed, I tried a different approach. I ignored email for an entire week of vacation. Although I returned to the office very relaxed, I was completely exhausted from returning emails by the end of my first day back. In the course of 24 hours, my vacation felt like a distant memory and on some level, I felt I had never been away from work. Hmm, what to do? The following year I went on another vacation and was absolutely set on disconnecting from work. But five days into my week away, I felt a sense of gloom come over me. I knew I would be going back into the work vortex that would quickly consume my life again.
Is there an ideal solution for managing email when on vacation? Over the years, I never found one. In reality, email has spiraled out of control in corporate America. It seems like some Americans boast about the number of emails they receive daily like it’s a badge of honor. I had someone smugly tell me, “I get over 300 emails a day.” and I couldn’t help but sense his ego was tied to his declaration. It seemed like he interpreted the number of emails he received as a measure of his value and importance to the organization. From my experience and perspective, I often found not only the number of emails unnecessary, but I wondered what the motives were. Many emails were not relevant to me and I couldn’t help but wonder: why are these people copying me in on this? I sensed some people were trying to establish their value to the organization and copying virtually every other person in the company who was perceived as being in a responsible position.
Interestingly, cultural approaches to work and in particular, email, are quite different around the world. For example, Europeans often go into someone else’s office and talk to them instead of shooting them an email. In the US, I find people with adjoining offices would rather send yet another email instead of having a conversation. In addition, Europeans aren’t nearly as calculating as Americans. Americans are consumed with self-promotion and as a result, are very concerned with how they are perceived, strategically put in “face time” at the office and socializing with the “right” players. Although that may take place to some degree in Europe, for most European businesses the proof is in the pudding. Success is defined not by whom you know or how many hours you put in at the office, but rather, quite simply, the quality of your work.
What do you think would happen if some changes were implemented in your company? Perhaps a “no email” policy between 9am -11 am or you and others in your company might be limited to sending five emails per day. Feel free to comment—share your experiences and thoughts!