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Do you have a company email policy? If not, a recent study out of Virginia Tech University suggests that you should create one.

The  study found that even the expectation that an employee will have to deal with after-hours emails creates anxiety for both the employee and other important people in their life. You should consider how this might be affecting you even if you don’t have the power to create policy in your organization. Because the truth is, if you’re checking your email on evenings and weekends, it’s not “invading” your personal time—you’re inviting it in!

That anxiety and work-life imbalance do harm in many ways, including undermining employees’ productivity. That’s why it’s imperative that business leaders take this study’s finding to heart. Your response, however, needs to be a lot more thoughtful and comprehensive than simply resolving that everyone needs to “do better” with email.

In my latest article for Harvard Business Review, I explain how we got into the unhealthy situation with email that the Virginia Tech study highlights. And I give some concrete strategies for implementing a company email policy that protects employees’ productivity and wellbeing. However, my clients have asked for more specifics, so this article is to expand on my thoughts in HBR.

Bad Email Habits Spring Up Quickly

As much as everyone seems to love complaining about email, you’d think we’d also be trying to manage it more thoughtfully and intentionally. But the opposite is true. Most of us fail to realize that email is real work that takes real time — and that our email habits have real effects on our colleagues.

Because we have this attitude about email, companies typically don’t take the time to set up formal rules and guidelines around it. As a result, unwritten rules take hold based on employees’ assumptions about what leaders want and what other employees are doing. For example, if employees see their boss or a colleague sending emails after hours, they assume they should also be constantly be available by email.

As I write in the HBR article, unhealthy email habits create an accelerated, stressful work culture. Employees never get a chance to recharge because they’re constantly tethered to the office. The Virginia Tech study shows the toll this kind of culture can take on individuals and families.

Clarify How Communication Should Happen

So how can you change your workplace culture to protect your employees from stress and burnout and help them be more productive? Start shaping a company email policy that’s crystal clear about your beliefs and expectations around email. Your policy will probably also cover other communications channels — such as text messages and project management software — in addition to email. It should help employees determine the right way to communicate in any situation. You can use the chart below as a starting point in crafting your own company email policy.

company communication policy

For additional resources, be sure to check out the full article in Harvard Business Review. Also, you might be interested in a concept that one company calls Zmail. You can read about that here. Also, I provide many other suggestions and examples of how other companies are doing it in my second book, Work Without Walls, An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work.

Guidelines around email help employees stop obsessing about what might be in their inbox. And when they can do that, they have more time both for focused work and for living a life outside of work that replenishes them (and ultimately makes them better at their jobs).

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