The negative effect of email isn’t news. The average worker spends 28% of the workday on email, and the task increases stress levels.
Limiting the number of times you check your inbox reduces stress, and taking breaks has been proven to improve focus.
So why aren’t more companies adopting email-free policies?
That’s a question Scott Dockter, CEO of fulfillment company PBD Worldwide answered in 2006. He and his assistant were having a lengthy email conversation going back and forth until he realized the absurdity.
"She sat right outside my office," he says. "Email can be stupid, especially in a small world."
At the time, he heard of other companies going email free for one day a week and decided it would be an interesting idea. He declared Fridays an email-free day and was surprised at the results.
"It worked ridiculously well," he says. "It showed how inefficient we were at communicating with each other."
Nine years later, employees continue to follow the policy. While customer service answers customer emails, all internal communication must be done either in person or on the phone. Dockter says there is no penalty or punishment if an employee uses email, but they all respect the idea and follow it.
"Employees like it because we get things done faster," he says. "Instead of the back and forth, things are solved quicker."
As a result of the increased human interaction, Fridays tend to have a looser feel, says Dockter. Eliminating emails on Fridays helps employees get their inbox clean for the weekend, and they start with a clean slate on Monday.
If Friday doesn’t work for you, then try another day, suggests John Olson, CEO of the pond and fountain supplier Graystone Industries. He goes email-free on Thursday.
"Generally it’s the slowest day of the week for me," he says. "My associates may continue to email but they know they will not receive a reply on any email directed to me."
Olson uses Thursdays to work on projects that will drive his company forward.
"The rest of the week is spent assisting customers, working with suppliers, and putting out the countless fires that come up daily," he says. "I think most managers and CEOs never actually catch up with their workload—I know in 15 years I have never sat back and said, ‘Well I am all caught up so let me start a new project.’ Without this day to plan for the future, I would stay mired in the minutiae of day-to-day operations."
Louisa Levit, cofounder of web developer Reliable PSD, has another solution for unplugging. One day a week, she and her staff only answer email for an hour in the morning and an hour at the end of the day, leaving the middle of the day completely email free. Everyone quits their email program and turns off notifications on phones.
"This has boosted productivity and creativity in our company," she says. "When your email is always open it is easy to get sucked into writing email after email in a never-ending whirlwind. But having long breaks allows the mind to relax and refocus. It also allows our people to do a better job when answering email and interacting with customers."
Thierry Breton, CEO of the French information technology company Atos, calls email "pollution." He found only 10% of the 200 messages his 76,000 employees receive each day were useful, so he banned its use for internal communications and implemented the instant messaging format blueKiwi in its place.
"We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives," he said in a statement announcing the policy in 2011. "At [Atos] we are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution."
Still email-free four years later, Atos has experienced a cultural shift with employees moving from an individual mindset to that of a community. The company reclaimed 25% of its work time that had been spent on email, and reports a 30% increase in customer satisfaction and efficiency.
"The biggest companies weren’t built remotely. Families don’t live remotely. Sports teams don’t train remotely," Nivi wrote on his Venture Hacks blog. "Face-to-face is for high-bandwidth communication; sub-communication, such as body language and facial expressions; leaving an impression; new ideas; overhearing other people’s conversations; bonding with your coworkers; whiteboarding; throwing chairs; and everything else you need to say to build a big business."