Overreaction against E-mail abuse . . .

Taking a Work Break

Conrad Weisert, December 31, 2006
©Information Disciplines, Inc.

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E-Mail Etiquette Badly Lacking


A misguided idea

This morning's NBC news reported on a company in Alpharetta, Georgia, that was discouraging internal E-mail and had banned it altogether one day a week. Staff members who needed to communicate with one another were encouraged to "just walk down the hall" or "just pick up the phone" to convey their questions or thoughts in person.

That surely takes the top prize (so far) for the silliest and most counterproductive management notion of the 21st Century. Just interrupt your colleagues' work whenever you have something to ask or some thought to share with them.

The great advantage of E-mail is that it helps us to manage our time.1 Instead of constant unpredictable interruptions from the telephone or from people dropping by our office, we can each decide for ourselves when we're ready to receive and act upon communications from our colleagues.

Update—October 5, 2007

Even the silliest management ideas catch on and spread. Tonight's ABC news reported that parts of Intel have established "E-mail-free Fridays". According to ABC News Intel employees are not forbidden to send E-mail, but they're encouraged instead to interrupt their colleagues either by phone or by dropping in.

The interruption problem is especially acute for a growing organization. As an organization grows, the frequency of interruptions increases as the square of the number of people, since both the number of potential interrupters and the number of available interruptees grow. Furthermore, an interesting conversation in a nearby cubicle can easily draw an audience, tying up four or five staff members.

A sensible idea

A software development organization I once worked for instituted a daily work break, a two-hour interrupt-free period when staff members could focus their attention exclusively on the creative or diagnostic or other activities that consituted their main responsibilities. The rules were simple. During those two hours:

Naturally, exceptions were tolerated for bona fide emergencies and insistent customers.

Today we'd have to add one more rule:

Which two hours?

We decided on the period from 9:30 to 11:30 each morning. That gave staff members time to respond to overnight production issues, and to enjoy casual interaction over coffee before starting concentrated work and to return calls before going to lunch.

Eventually customers got used to the schedule, and the volume of morning calls from outside dropped off.

Management discipline issues

For a while nearly all staff members welcomed the rules. They were able to get much more work done and no longer needed to stay after hours or to come in early to avoid interruptions.

Preserving the record

In addition to minimizing interruptions, E-mail serves to preserve a record of what has been said. Experience shows that memories of casual conversations are surprisingly unreliable, especially when complicated issues are discussed, such as details of a requirement for a new application system under development. Having it in writing saves time, avoids misunderstandings, and can settle disputes.

Staff members must never rely on E-mail, however, to set traps for organizational adversaries or to shift blame to them. Documentation is a positive force, not a weapon.

(Of course, there are times when one doesn't want to retain a record. If you're doing something illegal, unethical, or potentially embarrassing, some managers might advise you to avoid E-mail.)

Alas, however, the practice fizzled out after a few months. Exceptions, often triggered by managers, became more and more frequent, and some staff members forgot all about the rules. Some staff members continued to try to isolate themselves between 9:30 and 11:30, but without management support they eventually had to give up.

In my consulting work I've had occasion to recommend the work break to a number of client organizations. Some of them have adopted the practice with enthusiasm, but I regret having to report that few of them stuck with it for more than two or three months or for longer than the duration of one crash project. Nevertheless, the work break remains a proven effective management tool, and I continue to recommend it and to help organizations to implement it.

And above all, we must vigorously oppose any attempt to increase unplanned interruptions, such as the Alpharetta company's policy that discourages E-mail.


1 -- Managing one's own time is essential for people doing creative or diagnostic work, including programmers, systems analysts, database designers, technical writers, course developers, and project managers. They need to concentrate on the problem they're solving. There may be others, however, such as a help desk that serves outside customers, who need to respond quickly to unpredictable and uncontrollable input and therefore cannot participate in the work break.

Last modified July 25, 2008

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