Feature

Your first day back from vacation doesn't have to be an email nightmare

We could learn a few things from the Germans

My wife recently returned to work after a week at the beach. The holiday was great, but the return left much to be desired. Waiting for her in her work inbox were 180 unread emails. I gasped, but she stoically said, "It's okay. It's less than I expected."

In truth, many other workers who are now or soon will be coming back from summer vacations will be greeted by 10 or 100 times as many email messages, but it doesn't have to be that way. And if my wife worked for Daimler, Volkswagen, or some similarly forward-thinking company, her first day back at the office probably would have been much different.

German car and truck giant Daimler just announced that 100,000 of its employees can now block all incoming email messages when they're away on vacation. The "Mail on Holiday" setting will tell senders their email has not been received, and they will be directed to contact someone the vacationing employee has nominated to look after things — thus sparing the relaxed, returning vacationer the decidedly unrelaxing task of sorting through potentially hundreds of new emails their first day back.

This move follows on the heels of Volkswagen's 2011 decision to stop sending emails to employees after their shift has ended. Deutsche Telekom has a similar no-emails-after-hours policy, and last year the German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs told its own ministers not to bother staff after hours unless it's an emergency. The French have gotten in on the work/life balance act, as well. In April of this year the government adopted new rules designed to protect workers in certain sectors — digital and consultancy — from being bothered by emails during their off hours.

The Daimler program grew out of a work/life balance research project the company conducted with the University of Heidelberg involving a much smaller test group. Obviously, it was a hit, though overall it's less surprising that the French have jumped on the work/life balance bandwagon than the Germans. France is, after all, the home of the 35-hour work week while Germany is the undisputed economic dynamo of Europe, and you don't typically associate Teutonic culture with balance.

But as driven as they are, the Germans know that working smart is as important as working hard, and cutting-edge initiatives like Mail-on-Holiday means German companies are taking care of their employees while at the same time taking care of their businesses. "The aim of the project is to maintain the balance between the work and home life of Daimler employees," the company said in statement announcing the policy, "so as to safeguard their performance in the long run."

Programs like these aren't necessarily all about being good for goodness' sake. Companies have a natural self interest in the well being of their employees, but are just now waking up to that idea and figuring out it's smart business to address such issues up front. Work/life initiatives serve multiple purposes then, helping both company and employee alike. There's nothing wrong with that. And if you don't believe me, you can ask my wife — just as soon as she's finished emptying out her inbox.

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