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E-mail ban finds few fans

When U.S. Cellular's chief operating officer, Jay Ellison, imposed a "no e-mail Friday" rule at his company, he thought it would ease workers' overload.

Instead, he got a rebellion. Among many irate responses, Kathy Volpi, a marketing director, confronted Ellison over a seemingly needless obstacle to productivity. "I thought, 'He just doesn't understand how much work we have to get done, and how much easier"' it is when using e-mail.

A growing number of employers, including U.S. Cellular, Deloitte & Touche and Intel, are imposing or trying out "no e-mail" Fridays or weekends. While the bans typically allow e-mailing clients and customers or responding to urgent matters, the normal flow of routine internal e-mail is halted. Violators are hit with token fines, or just called out by the boss.

The limits aim to encourage more face-to-face and phone contact with customers and co-workers, raise productivity or just give employees a reprieve from the ever-rising e-mail tide. E-mails sent by individual corporate users are projected to increase 27 percent this year, to an average of 47 a day — up from 37 in 2006, says Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif., research and consulting firm.

Managers complain that rather than confronting problems, employees use e-mail to avoid them by passing issues back and forth in long message strings, like a hot potato. E-mail reduces face-to-face contact among co-workers and clients; terse, poorly phrased messages further strain those relationships. And it is spilling into weekends, chaining employees to computers when they should be relaxing.

Psychologist Ken Siegel classifies the e-mail habit as "a dependency." Cut off from their habit, employees at first may become hostile and critical, says Siegel, president of Impact Group, Los Angeles management consultants.

Although Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, training and consulting firm, recommends employers impose "no e-mail" days, she attaches a warning: "When you try to take e-mail away from some users, they're going to panic."

Even Volpi, now U.S. Cellular's director of product management and marketing, has become a fan of the ban. Now, she makes a point of visiting co-workers on Fridays. Business, she says, isn't only about e-mailing "cold reports" and being efficient, she says. "It's about human beings and interaction."