Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Five Sides to the Volkswagon After-Hours Email Ban


Volkswagon recently announced that it is shutting down the BlackBerry server for email traffic 30 minutes after the workday ends.  This policy is only in effect in Germany, and does not include Sr. Management.  Is this the start of a new trend to get better work life balance, an example of heavy handed union interference, or a DOA proposal on par with the twin NetFlix fiasco’s of 2011?  Here are Five Sides to the issue.


1. It’s a real problem.  The email shut down is a baby step attempt to solve a real problem – the “24/7 on”, work-first culture.  It is neither healthy nor sustainable to be on call all the time, yet for more people every year, that is exactly what is happening.  Most of the after hours email is non-essential, but perceived as important.  From comment #49 on the BBC article “I know so many people who no longer have a weekend to relax and recharge.”  (Most of the following quotes come from the same forum.)

2. It’s a question of power.  The BlackBerry shut down was negotiated by the German Trade Union as a working-condition improvement for it’s members.  Volkswagon is not extending this shutdown to workers outside of the Trade Union, and would not have extended this one had not been forced to.  Many comments after these articles say that it should be up to each worker to decide what is best for them.  But for many people, making the decision to turn off is not allowed.  “Don’t have a choice – have to answer e-mail 24/7 or fired.”  It took the negotiating power of the union to stand up for the employees who did not have the option to say no.  Shutting down the email server levels the playing field for all employees.

3. Lost flexibility and perhaps less competitive.  The flip side is seen in the following posts.  “This is such a backward step – this should be about personal choice. With two young children I prefer sorting email at 10pm rather than being expected to be at my desk until 5 or 6pm and missing their bedtime. As a few people have said – you can turn these things off.”  I see the struggle whether to put the kids before work, or the work before the kids.  Either way, the self comes third.  In my opinion, people, both the kids and the self, need to come before the company.  It’s a values thing.

Another person said “Lucky workers. I wish I could just turn it off, however, my customers would not be too happy and i may lose them.”  Or, you may not lose them.

4. Management still plugged in.  Senior managers are not included in the ban, but these are the people who need it the most.  Management is expected to align itself with the company, and of course are not included in a Union benefit.  But the managers are people too, and often work longer hours with less down time. There is an expectation that the higher you go in a company, the more you need to be available at any time.  But that time comes from family, community, sleep, exercise, hobbies…

This is an opportunity for managers to look at their own values, and to begin to chart a healthier and more balanced life for themselves.  The BlackBerry Blackout invites the question, if for them, why not for us too?  The answer will come in the form of a business case – the company needs you to bla bla bla.  Come up with a business case for the outcome that is better for you.  An email blackout leads to greater productivity, less wasted effort, and  more effective management.

5. Doesn’t solve the real problem, but better than nothing.  In the short run, this ban is a good thing.  Although heavy handed, it will prevent people from checking email, and just as importantly, prevent people from sending email at night.  Unquestionably, this will decrease stress, which is great.

However, email at home is a symptom of a larger issue – a value system that puts the company first.  The ban doesn’t cover non-blackberry email, and doesn’t cover most VW employees.  And if the prevailing culture is company first, people will comply with the letter of the rule, but find ways to work around it.  Managers will phone or text.  People will stay at work later, or log in to their computers.

Values ultimately define the boundaries of behavior.  I hope this window of lower stress allows people to step back and re-engage with values that put people ahead of the company.  I hope that individual senior managers see the email blackout as a good thing for them too.  Less email for some can lead to less email for all.  And that would be a good thing.



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