No-E-Mail Fridays Transform Office


April 7, 2007 — -- It's how corporate America communicates.

Scheduling a meeting? Send an e-mail. Need that report right away? Send an e-mail. Are there serious issues in the department? Nothing a chain of e-mails can't solve.

The volume of e-mails has exploded in recent years with over 170 billion now being sent daily around the globe, according to technology market researcher Radacati Group. That's two million every second.

But many in business now worry this tool for easy communication is actually making it harder to communicate.

"Some [e-mails] are very valuable, and some of them are just an excuse not to communicate or to protect myself from something that's going on," said Jay Ellison, executive vice president at Chicago-based U.S. Cellular.

Two and a half years ago, Ellison was receiving an average of 200 e-mails a day, many of which went unopened. After getting cyber-indigestion, he sent out a memo to his 5,500 subordinates.

"I'm announcing a ban on e-mail every Friday," Ellison's memo read. "Get out to meet your teams face-to-face. Pick up the phone and give someone a call. … I look forward to not hearing from any of you, but stop by as often as you like."

The no-e-mail-Friday idea landed with a thud.

"Jay's insane. He's crazy," said marketing director Kathy Volpi, recalling the initial impression she and others had. "Employees would queue up their e-mails, and then at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, they'd let them fly."

Eventually, the policy won over staff members. Forced to use the phone, employee John Coyle learned that a co-worker who he thought was across the country was, in fact, across the hall.

"I asked him where he was and he said I'm on the fourth floor, and I said, 'Well so am I,'" said Coyle. "We now have a working relationship that is deeper than he's the guy that provides reports."

Public affairs manager Tyler Caroll, because of her gender-neutral name, used to get e-mails addressing her as a "he" or "Mr." Phone calls on a no-e-mail-Friday changed all that.

"People were really surprised that they had a woman's voice at the other end of the line instead of a man's," said Carroll with a laugh.

U.S. Cellular isn't the only company curbing e-mail. At PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based outsourcing company, e-mail-free-Fridays have changed habits throughout the week -- e-mail volume is down a whopping 75 percent -- and that's helped the bottom line.

"What I think it's done is make us more efficient, and it's made us listen to our customers better," said PBD vice president Lisa Williams.

The trend is seen as a backlash against a corporate "crackberry" culture of impersonal communications. Last August, 400 Radio Shack employees received their pink slips electronically. In 2002, now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Anderson dropped the e-mail hatchet as well.

"I think it's been abused over the years," said Ellison. "We tend to use e-mail as a kind of a tool to hide behind issues versus getting up and talking to people."

In addition to being impersonal and tedious, studies show e-mail can also be confusing and lead to misunderstandings in the workplace, particularly with bosses.

"As a medium, it's inherently ambiguous," said behavioral science professor Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "There's not as much information conveyed. The pitch of your voice, the speed with which you say something, the emotional tone that's carried in your voice isn't there."

At U.S. Cellular, no-e-mail-Fridays have been such a success that the company recently instituted a new policy aimed at another corporate vice: no-meetings-Friday.