Why Virgin is shutting down its email - for a time

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CBS NEWS - MONEYWATCH Americans have an email problem: They’re addicted to it, yet they can feel overwhelmed by their inboxes, with many reporting “email fatigue.”

One company says it’s addressing the relentless pressure to constantly check email by mandating what it’s calling a digital detox. Virgin Management, the management company owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, will shut down all email access each Wednesday morning for two hours. Employees will be encouraged instead to talk with co-workers and get away from their desks.

During the past few years, Virgin Management has gained recognition for its unconventional approach to workplace issues such as paid parental leave and vacation, with employees now given one year of the former and unlimited days of the latter.

Yet generous as those policies are, workers increasingly feel tethered to work because of the ever-present inbox. About one in four workers polled by Adobe last year said they checked their email “way too much.”

“We were concerned that our teams were spending too much time communicating via their inbox. The digital detox is a great way to encourage people to talk with one another, share ideas, innovate and spend time away from their desks,” said CEO Josh Bayliss in a statement. “Digitalization and flexible working has fantastic benefits, but we want to help our people balance this.”

it’s unclear what might keep workers from checking their emails on their smartphones, but the gesture may be appreciated by some employees. About four in 10 workers told Adobe they go on self-imposed email detox diets, skipping their email for an average of five days.

One downside to a digital detox -- the scores of emails that will be undoubtedly waiting for workers once they log back in.

The email blackout only extends to the 200 workers at Virgin Management’s New York and London offices, and doesn’t apply to Virgin’s brands under its Virgin Group banner. The new policy is being introduced as part of Virgin’s Disruptors conference on October 3, which will be held in London but also streamed at the Virgin website.

Of course, there’s a flip side to the stress of omnipresent work email: the increasingly common habit of checking social media sites while on the job. The most common reason for looking at social media at work -- to take a mental break from the job, Pew Research Center found.

In fact, about one-quarter of workers polled by Pew said they never use the internet for job-related tasks. It could be that Virgin is hoping not only to relieve inbox stress, but also to refocus workers on their tasks by cutting out email for a few hours each week.