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To Unburden Workers, German Firms Limit E-Mail During Vacations

Handy Beach shot Source DPA
Companies such as Daimler are taking steps to keep workers off their cellphones while on vacation.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    To ease stress on employees and let them work more efficiently, German companies are no longer requiring workers to be reachable off-site via email.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Many German companies are less demanding of their workers during off-hours than U.S. or British firms.
    • Volkswagen has a policy that lets employees be unavailable by phone between certain hours and while on vacation.
    • In some companies, senior executives are setting the tone by switching off their smartphone or checking emails only once a day.
  • Audio

    Audio

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It’s August and Germans are going on vacation for most of the month. But so many workers are taking their work email with them these days, that a growing number of companies are relieving their employees of the burden of being reachable anywhere and anytime.

“Mail on Holiday” is Daimler’s new out-of-the-office assistant, which automatically deletes incoming emails during vacation periods. Some 100,000 employees in Germany will be able to use the service this summer for the first time. The goal of the program is to make sure that employees returning from vacation will “be greeted by a clean desk.” Daimler calls it “easing an emotional burden” on its employees.

Although email isn’t always the most suitable form of communication, it’s one of the most popular. This leads to a veritable flood of electronic letters that can inundate employees’ inboxes around the clock.

Many large companies have developed guidelines for employee accessibility via email, but they are often loosely worded. Deutsche Telekom has a so-called smartphone policy, under which employees are not required to read or answer emails after working hours, on weekends and while on vacation. Those who do so nonetheless are doing it voluntarily.

Bosch’s “Guideline for Family-conscious and Flexible Working Hours” states that employees are “fundamentally not expected to be available” during their free time, said a spokesman. The company has fixed procedures for delegating tasks. How work is transferred to coworkers is also clearly defined, the spokesman added.

Bosch management is setting the tone. “In 2013, there were about five cases in which I urgently had to reach one of my employees over the weekend,” says Christoph Kübel, the company’s head of human resources. “I myself was contacted just as infrequently during my free time.”

'Mail on Holiday' is Daimler's new out-of-the-office assistant, which automatically deletes incoming emails during vacation periods.

Steelmaker ThyssenKrupp’s CEO, Heinrich Hiesinger, also wants his employees to relax and not read emails while at the beach or in the mountains. He checks his own mailbox only once a day. “As gratifying as it is to see how committed our employees are to their jobs, people who work have to be able to switch off during their vacations,” says Dieter Kempf, president of Bitkom, the Federal Association for Information Technology.

Volkswagen and its employees agreed to put an end to the concept of constant availability some time ago. The automaker’s employees do not receive emails on their company-owned mobile phones between 6:15 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., or on weekends.

 

smartphone urlaub dpa
Staying up on the office talk from the beach. Source: DPA

 

Other companies take the concept much further by emphasizing new ways to make communication among employees more efficient. IT service provider Atos, for example, has completely eliminated internal email and replaced it with its own social network, a sort of corporate Facebook. Employees only use their classic mailboxes to communicate with people outside the company. ATOS Chief Executive Thierry Breton had previously found that 40 percent of his employees spent two to three hours a day processing electronic mail, while another 30 percent took more than three hours. It was insane, Mr. Breton concluded.

Still, companies like Atos are the exception in Germany. Only 7 percent of small and medium-sized companies and 12 percent of large corporations use social media for internal communication, researchers at the TNS market research firm discovered.

But the word “social” also means tearing down walls, the goal being to make previously hidden knowledge in the company accessible to everyone. In the past, a lot of information was tucked away in employees’ email inboxes and was therefore inaccessible to the rest of the company.

Bosch is one of the companies determined to change the status quo. Its internal network is called “Bosch Connect,” and about 200,000 of the technology company’s workforce of 280,000 participate. “We have found that this enables us to reduce internal email traffic by more than 30 percent,” says a company spokesman.

Of course, say sources at Daimler, its top executives have not activated the “Mail on Holiday” feature for their own email accounts. The company argues that senior management has to remain accessible, and that it doesn’t want to run the risk of information being lost.

Translated by Christopher Sultan

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