THE BLOG
10/01/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Week Without an Inbox

Alamy

In honor of National Work and Family Month, I want to throw down a challenge. Take one week in October and ban your team from using email. Get them to step away from the inbox.

I issued the same edict to my team this past spring, after reading a Chicago Tribune interview with Arianna Huffington in which she advised entrepreneurs to avoid the reactive nature of email. As she said, "Any time we are on email, we are reacting. Very often, we may spend an entire day, week, month, year, just reacting and operating from our inbox rather than from what we want to create."

Huffington is not the only one to recognize that responding to an inbox could be interfering with our innovation and energy. Far from it.

German car maker Daimler has implemented a radical new program in which employees can automatically delete incoming emails while on vacation. While they are out, the system automatically kicks back an email notice indicating the recipient is out of the office and offering an alternative contact instead.

And in France, select unions and employers have signed a labor agreement, giving employees the right (or obligation, depending on how you read it) to disconnect from their email for a certain number of hours each day.

People, Purpose and Potatoes

During our email hiatus at Life Meets Work, I wanted to push team members to connect with people on a more personal level. The email ban included not only emails amongst ourselves but also with clients. We set up autoresponders to let people know we weren't checking email and encouraged them to call us instead.

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Here are some things we learned:

  1. Email makes us feel important. This gets to the same ego issues we have around being hyper-busy at work. If we're not constantly getting emails, are we valued?
  2. Email can mask what is truly important since the emails in our inbox feel more urgent. We feel an obligation to acknowledge and respond promptly, and that makes us feel reactive rather than purposeful.
  3. Email creates a game of hot potato, as in: "I got the email out of my inbox and into yours. I win!" Email is efficient for delegating, but are we really getting work 'done'? Some tasks can be resolved more efficiently through conversation.
  4. Email is highly useful for transactional types of communication. During our weekly ban, we quickly realized that we needed to bend the rules if, and only if (!), we needed to exchange documents with a client.
  5. When sharing documents with each other, we posted them to our shared file system and then found ourselves sending instant messages to alert each other that a) the document was ready and b) located here ___. Admittedly, it was slightly awkward and not altogether efficient.
  6. There are better ways to collaborate than email. By forcing ourselves over to group chat, phone, and video conferences for the week, we eliminated many of those infernal 'reply all' email exchanges. We also used Yammer for idea sharing and posting information updates to the entire team.

We're back at our email, but I'd like to think we're a little better at it. We're picking up the phone a bit more. We're using subject line conventions like "FYI Only." And we're parking ideas in the cloud, instead of our inboxes.

For one week, we stopped reacting and started interacting. It felt good. It felt less stressful. And for my team, it was a reminder that email begets more email.

It's one thing to step away from your own email and work from a place of purpose. But we do even more for each other when we think twice about the emails we send--how many we send and when we're sending them.