Information overload and the great blackout debate

A handful of organizations have taken drastic measures to fight information overload and burnout, limiting employees’ access to communication tools after work hours. Is this a good idea?

All the exciting new ways workers have to communicate may come with a dark side. According to both anecdotal evidence and expert opinion, increased workaholism might be a dangerous side effect.

When iPass conducted a study of mobile work, for example, most respondents claimed that the flexibility to work when and where they choose made them more relaxed and aided in striking a happy work-life balance. But a substantial minority admitted this freedom made them more stressed. And overall the survey found flexibility increased time worked per week by at least 10 hours.

Some companies have looked at this data and decided to take drastic steps. Volkswagen now turns off employees’ BlackBerrys after hours, and Atlanta-based shipping company PBD Worldwide also limits workers’ access to email at night and on weekends. French IT services firm Atos went hog wild and announced plans to eliminate internal email all together, U.S. Cellular instituted no email Fridays, and start-up FullContact actually gives a $7,500 bonus to completely unplug on vacation.

Desperate times call for desperate measures?

Plenty of folks have applauded these sorts of hard limits (and extreme incentives) to limit after hours work. PC World called it a brilliant idea, cheering “congrats, Volkswagen proletariat. Your free time is now free,” while readwrite’s Brian Proffitt declared himself a convert to the no after-hours email movement.

Noting that remote workers in particular are vulnerable to getting sucked into constant work, Proffitt claims that “unless the expectations of ‘always on’ can be reduced to a reasonable level, the intrusiveness of work into our daily lives is never going to end.” Company-wide bans, he feels, are a good step towards recalibrating expectations to a healthier, more sustainable level.


Not everyone’s a fan, however. To some critics, the idea of a ban is much like sucking on lozenges instead of treating your bronchitis. It may feel nice but it doesn’t get at the underlying problem.

A recent study by The Grossman Group and LCWA Research Group concluded, for example, that rather than ban certain communications, companies need to help employees find strategies to productively manage information overload around the clock. “We’ve seen companies around the world experimenting with email black-outs or time-outs.  However, our research reveals that’s not the most effective approach. Employees are overloaded by their inboxes and it’s causing them stress, yet it’s email misbehaviors that need to be addressed,” commented David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group.

“A more comprehensive effort to get workers to use email well every day of the week might be a better approach [than bans],” concurs Gina Trapani on lifehacker.

Don’t Ban, Communicate

Cindy Auten of Telework Exchange agrees that bans treat the symptoms, not the cause of information overload, but her focus is on communication rather than better information practices. Organizations need to talk about work-life balance and set appropriate boundaries so that everyone is on the same page. Mobile work is a benefit not a burden and should be treated as such.

“It’s critical to provide access to your systems remotely. Too often, we are in need of working remotely,” she told Central Desktop in an email. “That said, set the precedent on how you email and the expectations on any reply emails.”

How would that conversation go? “For example, as a leader, I want the option to be able to send you a message, but I don’t expect one in return during the evenings or weekends. If you are a teleworker, it doesn’t mean you are ‘on call’. If you are given a mobile device, it doesn’t mean you need to sleep with it under your pillow,” she explained.

She’s not alone in this opinion. Cali Williams Yost, CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group, argued on Fast Company recently that beating burnout is mostly a matter of clear communication.

Have you grappled with information overload? Work blackout hours: effective or ineffective? We’d love to hear your perspectives.

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.