Ongoing innovation in technology has revolutionized the way the business world operates. And it’s mostly been for the better. However, as technology becomes more pervasive, so does work itself. It’s increasingly more difficult to ever really “leave the office” when the ability to work is right at your fingertips with your smartphone.
For some employees, this is a good thing because it creates more working flexibility. And most employers aren’t going to discourage their staff from putting in the extra hours. But for others, it’s a nuisance and an added stressor that interferes with family and free time. But what is an aspiring employee to do when his or her manager sends an email at 2 p.m. on Saturday? Take time away from the weekend to respond? Or ignore it until Monday and spend the weekend worrying about potential repercussions for a delayed response?
“You can say people aren’t required to reply to an email, but if one employee does respond and the other doesn’t, who will get a higher performance rating?” William J. Becker, co-author of the study “Exhausted, but Unable to Disconnect: After-Hours Email, Work- Family Balance and Identification” told NBC News.
Dan Calista, CEO of Vynamic, a health-care industry management consulting firm with headquarters in Philadelphia and a location in Boston, has eliminated this dilemma for his employees. In 2012, Calista introduced a workplace policy that bans company emails from being sent all weekend and weekdays between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The concept is known around Vynamic as “zzzMail,” a play on words to emphasize the importance of allowing employees to be free of work outside office hours.
“Our team was saying they’re always connected, they’re always plugged in, so it’s hard to get away from everything,” Calista said. “When you think about it from a trend perspective, we’re the first working generation to have technology so ubiquitous that it surrounds us all the time, including evenings and weekends, so the lines are completely blurred. It can be really difficult to get your mind out of the tactical things. So, we really thought it would be worth trying and as it turned out, it’s really probably the best benefit we’ve ever created for the company.”
Calista didn’t just spring the idea on his team. The zzzMail concept was developed after a series of staff surveys revealed employees were undeniably stressed. The intent of unplugging during evenings and weekends was to improve wellness, so Calista and his leadership group piloted the idea for a month to gauge the plausibility of implementing it as an organizationwide policy.
“Sure enough, at first it was difficult. But by the end of the month, they all got behind it,” Calista said. “And they were like, ‘I think it can work.’ Having the leadership group pilot helped make it real for the rest of the organization.”
In the past six years, the effects of zzzMail have been overwhelmingly positive in different facets, Calista said.
“It really helps from our retention perspective. We have very high retention for our industry. We’re basically at 93% retention, which in our industry is unheard of,” Calista said. “I also believe it gets people more creative. You don’t have that burntout look on people that can happen. You get people who are refreshed and able to share ideas. When it’s Monday morning, they’re ready to come back and they’re on top of things.”
New York City legislators are looking to turn their own version of zzzMail into law. Workers in the Big Apple could be banned from checking or replying to after-hour emails if the bill, “Private Employees Disconnecting from Electronic Communications During Nonwork Hours,” is passed into law. The bill, however, does not ban emails being sent after hours. It just makes it “unlawful for private employers in the city of New York to require employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during nonwork hours.”
Therefore, the law isn’t geared toward shutting down connectivity after work like zzzMail, but rather, managing bosses’ expectations around it. Even if the bill passes, employers would still be able to send emails after work hours and employees could still respond at their own volition.
Further, the plausibility of a bill like this passing is unlikely given all the different variables at play, said Melissa Murdock, director of external affairs at WorldatWork.
“I don’t think public policy is the right solution in this situation. A flat-out, one-size-fits-all ban against requiring employees to answer emails after hours would be extremely difficult to implement across all workforces,” Murdock said. “A law like this wouldn’t work in so many different industries. Think about journalists: Breaking news happens 24/7. Doctors need to be on call for hosts of medical reasons and there are tons of jobs where employees need to be available during peak times or seasons, but then are afforded more flexibility during down times. Trying to regulate business in this way would be a nightmare. In instances like this where so many different factors are at play, public policy often isn’t the answer.”
Calista agreed with the notion that legislating such a policy would be folly. However, he feels as more organizations begin to adopt a similar concept to his zzzMail policy, it will become a competitive HR advantage in the talent war.
“I think employees are going to demand it. My vision for the working world is that employees will come to expect a zzzMail policy just like they come to expect other benefits,” Calista said. “I think employers are going to make decisions about how they’re going to create healthy, sustainable work environments or else the employees, all things being equal, are going to take a different job.”
THE FRENCH DISCONNECTION
France passed a similar law that went into effect at the beginning of 2018. The law requires businesses with 50 or more employees to negotiate after-hours email rules with their employees, potentially giving them the right to ignore that weekend inconvenience.
“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down,” Benoit Hamon, a member of Parliament, told the BBC in May 2017, when the measure was introduced.
There is, however, no penalty in place for organizations that violate the law. And the “50 or more employees” provision is important. According to European Union statistics, a high proportion of French organizations report employing only 49 people, because French workplace laws kick in at 50 or more employees. In 2015, exempt businesses with 49 or fewer workers employed 48.6% of the French workforce. So, this new law would potentially apply to just a little more than half of the working population.
Comparing the United States to France when it comes to legislating business, however, is an exercise in futility.
“France looks at the relationship between their government and business very differently than the United States,” Murdock explained. “There, citizens are more comfortable with the government establishing rules that apply across the board to all employers. In the U.S., the sentiment is that the government should set the floor or minimum of what all employers have to do in order to do business. Anything above this is interference in the free market that is often frowned upon.”
There is also a major difference in the way the United States approaches work compared to France — as well as many European countries. Americans take much less vacation time than their European counterparts. (See Figure 1.)
By comparison, workers in Australia and the European Union have a mandatory minimum of 20 days paid vacation, with some European countries giving their employees up to 25 days a year. France and Italy tend to be more relaxed in their work approach compared to their European counterparts, said Kevin Cashman, a global leader of CEO and executive development at Korn Ferry. Cashman said that in most of Western Europe, it used to be the standard to take four to six weeks off in the summer. While that has scaled back to three to four weeks in most places, the French and Italians have tended to maintain the status quo. An uneasiness about taking vacation time also plays into the disparity between continents.
It’s increasingly more difficult to ever really “leave the office” when the ability to work is right at your fingertips.
“I see a lot less guilt in Europe for time off and I think it’s that long history of big summer breaks and seeing the benefit of that rest to productivity,” Cashman said. “There’s a little more guilt and pressure around that in Europe than there used to be, but compared to an American culture, time off still is much more prevalent.”
What’s more, a decent percentage of Americans aren’t even taking all their vacation time, because of that guilt. A Kimble Applications survey found that 21% of Americans left more than five vacation days on the table in 2017. The reasons for doing so varied. 27% said they have too many projects or deadlines to take vacation, while 19% said they have been pressured by their manager not to take a vacation and 14% believe not using vacation days increases their chances for advancement.
However, according to a research study by the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, people who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period of time. And people who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus.
But the biggest reason for not taking advantage of vacation days was the inability to unplug, as 48% said they check on work while they vacation and 29% said they are expected to be available for emergencies while away.
“It’s pretty simple,” Cashman said. “Taking time off is still more acceptable in Europe than North America and particularly the U.S.”
A HEALTHY CULTURE
This type of overworked culture is part of what spawned Calista’s idea to reinvigorate his workforce by taking a step back with zzzMail. Given Vynamic operates in the health-care industry, it seemed befitting to promote a healthy workplace environment. The after-hours-and-weekend email ban has been an integral part of building that robust culture, because it has set the tone for what kind of talent the organization retains and attracts.
“Our vision is to be the healthiest company in the world, so we want people who are on board with that,” Calista said. “It also helps monitor and self-govern the culture, because people who join, join signing up for that, so we all help to ensure it. If you’re the type that wants this very hierarchical structure and gets people involved with things at all types of odd hours, then you’re not going to do well here and you’re probably not going to want to come here in the first place, because we’re talking about a healthy culture that’s more sustainable.”
Vynamic’s zzzMail concept has been met with a fair share of detractors ever since it has received recognition, because on the surface it seems to be promoting less work flexibility. But Calista is quick to point out that this isn’t a work curfew.
“Work when you want to work. The difference is, just don’t hit send on your email,” Calista said. “Don’t make your to-do list come to me randomly on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, or 12 o’clock at night when you happen to be awake. And some would say, ‘Well just don’t check your email.’ It’s not that easy. The technology is so ubiquitous, it’s almost like trying to hide from a sports score. It’s just all around, coming at you. So why not as an individual just hit save and don’t hit send and send it Monday morning?”
When chatting with Calista about zzzMail it becomes clear how passionate he is about an idea that he thinks could go a long way toward revolutionizing the modern workplace. He’s witnessed firsthand the positive effect it’s had on his employees and can attest to the improvement it’s had on his own work-life balance.
In a new age of work in which organizations are constantly trying to attract more talent with better benefits, foosball tables, food offerings, happy hours and fitness centers, Calista emphasizes that zzzMail’s impact is priceless.
“I can’t think of any notable benefit that is truly free to implement. We’re not talking about a sub-software product they need. We’re not talking about an added health-care cost, something else to layer. There’s no tradeoff. It creates a benefit truly without cost [and] with tremendous upside,” Calista said. “My challenge to companies is to take the zzzMail challenge. Say you’re an HR department, just the one team, try it for one month and see what happens and see how you feel. Do you feel that anything at work has flipped? Or do you feel like it is getting better and more productive? And that will start to build momentum.”
Brett Christie is a staff writer at WorldatWork.