People need work-free time, but few really get the message.
Early in my career, I worked at an agency where the partners didn’t understand how to implement an intra-office email network. This was in the nascent days of the Web, so their idea was to get everyone in the office to sign up for a Yahoo! account to use, which required a browser to view. It turned out to be an inconvenient solution with no alerts for incoming email, so no one ever checked their accounts and the idea was a failure.
We’ve certainly overcompensated for those days.
Last week, a story made the rounds that for some workers in France, there’s now a ban on employers sending emails after 6 p.m. To clarify some misconceptions, there’s no penalty for any employee who responds after 6:00; it only applies to a fraction of French workers who are contract workers, and it’s not a law. But boy, the news of the idea spread fast here among American workers, perhaps because it seems so contradictory to the way we operate here.
So what would happen if American advertising agencies in the U.S. tried this rule? Can anyone successfully do business in 2014 and keep it to a daylight-based timeframe?
First off, I’m under no delusion it’ll ever happen. But it speaks to the nature of our business today that such an idea is almost impossible to imagine. Why?
Like so many other culture-related items, email habits start at the top. CEOs and top management set the agenda for the rest of the agency, and most of them squeeze in their emails when they can — which can often be late at night, early in the A.M., or on weekends.
That creates a sense of paranoia in the rest of the agency. For a lot of people, there’s a pressure to respond to a late-night incoming email with an immediate reply — to show you’re on the job and being responsible.
We’ve all gotten those panicked notes. “The client isn’t happy!” “We need these revisions first thing in the A.M.” “The banner ads are only pulling a 0.0001% response and we promised 0.0003%, so change them out now.” Which means you can’t be out of reach, if you’re a valuable person to the company or you at least want to give the perception you’re valuable.
And don’t forget those dreaded cc’s. Yes, it doesn’t matter where you are on the food chain, you’re either copying everyone or being copied by everyone on emails. You feel the need to be in the loop, and you may get a little paranoid if you’re not. So even trivial matters get your attention at 9 P.M. And if you’re in any position of responsibility, emails flood in for all sorts of reasons, whether they need your attention or not.
So what if an agency CEO said, “Enough” to late-night emails? It’d be an interesting experiment. But like any other corporate edict, you’d quickly see a one-time exception when an email really needs to be sent out. Which would be repeated the next day, and the day after that, until it’s forgotten altogether. It’s the “Broken Windows Theory” at work, only it’s the notion of free time that’s being vandalized.
The truth is that, everyone, no matter how productive, determined, or sleep-deprived they may be, needs a break. A mental break. A promise of uninterrupted family or friends time without the lingering, nagging feeling that email needs attention. Or the ability to lose oneself in a movie, museum, or other activities a CD of mine once called “filling the well.”
This is all a bit different than, say, working late on ideas or a pitch. Because ideas can occur anytime, anywhere. I’ve had many a mini-brainstorm late at night because my subconscious mind was pondering an assignment. Sometimes work requires odd hours, and that’s fine.
But in an industry where we base much of our work on dramatizing the mundane, it’s hard to believe that we can’t live without email after a certain hour. Unless you’re managing people halfway around the world in a different time zone, few issues are so pressing they can’t be dealt with at a reasonable time.
So there may come a reckoning against the mismanagement that lets emails fly at all hours of the night. When people recognize that matters aren’t as urgent as they appear. Or that our real-time marketing world is created by, and for, real people with real lives. We’ll see. As for me, I’m rarely away from email for any extended period of time, and it keeps me both in-the-loop and in a constant state of anxiety.
In the meantime, watch out for those emails. But if you happen to be going to Cannes this year, remember: Don’t respond to the emails at night. Stick to partying your ass off with some aging Creative Directors. Remember, you need to fit in with the French culture.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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