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Should Your Company Use "Zmail"? The Case For Inbox Curfews

Or, as healthcare consulting firm Vynamic conceived it, an email blackout on weekday nights and weekends.

I’m writing this post at 10 p.m. on a Monday. But if I emailed a quick question to the post’s main subject—Vynamic CEO Dan Calista—he wouldn’t get back to me until tomorrow.

That’s because Vynamic, a Philadelphia-based health-care consulting company, officially requests that employees not send email between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. The policy, which the company dubs "zmail," began after employees complained about stress in the annual engagement survey. Constant email contact played a role in that. Calista describes it this way: "You get an email. You’re trying to sleep. You happen to look at it right as you fall asleep, and next thing you know you’re up thinking about it. All it takes is that one." And so the policy began: "Let it wait until the morning."

The roll-out required some thought. Managers had to go first. After a month, they evaluated it, and "everyone became a believer in it," says Calista. So the email blackout zone went into the employee handbook. "We’re not going to fire somebody if they violate it," he says. But it’s pretty effectively self-policed.

Is it utopia? Should your company try it, too?

Well, there are caveats. For starters, no email doesn’t mean no contact. People communicated before email. Vynamic tells clients to call if something requires urgent attention. Colleagues likewise call each other if they need to. The point is more to undercut the less important stuff. "If it’s so not important that you can send an email, it’s probably not that important," says Calista.

Likewise, no email doesn’t mean no work. Parents of young kids may work after the children go to bed so they can be home with them in the evening (that’s why I’m up and writing now). Calista describes a few colleagues who enjoy cranking stuff out on Saturday morning. There’s no problem with writing memos then, but "Could you save it as a draft?" he asks. "Why is it so important to you that the other person join your weekend time?" Email is a two-way street, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be. Off-hours messages can go out at 6 a.m. in the morning, or on Monday.

And finally, any restriction on email time has a funny tendency to concentrate emails into other periods of time. A high volume of Vynamic email is sent and received at 9:59 p.m., a phenomenon known as "zbombing."

"It happened to me last week," Calista says. "Someone was giving me the case why a person should be promoted soon," and Calista found himself up for another hour wondering why the note came in right at shutdown time. Was the employee in question planning on quitting in the morning? Why was it so urgent? It turned out that the email sender had been planning to send that note all week, and the time deadline lit a fire under him. Calista had been zbombed.

That said, sometimes it is nice to unplug and feel pretty sure everyone else is unplugging, too. "Just knowing that your employer is not expecting you to be online between those hours is liberating," Calista says. "It allows you to mentally disconnect for a few hours." If you use that time to get enough sleep and recharge, you might be even more productive in the morning. Or at least less likely to quit—Vynamic has had less than 10% annual attrition of its consultants in the last five years.

[Image: Flickr user Dennis Skley]

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  • Clayton Haapala

    And in a more global work environment, where 10pm happens over five or six timezones?

    But, I get the main point -- do not have expectations for those in their zmail hours. If it is important, call.

  • R. Darren Sanford, CPA, CGMA

    Ummm...did I miss something here? What's up with just turning your email off?

  • Alina Vrabie

    Great article! I think many companies would benefit from it. Another idea would be to adopt IM between co-workers - it really decreases the amount of emails in employees' inboxes. That's what we use at Sandglaz, and if I do get an email at 11 pm, it's usually from one of our clients. 
    I also just wrote a blog post about office communication tools - their pros and cons and how to use them effectively -