When I think back to my first e-mail address, it’s with a sense of nostalgia that’s usually reserved for childhood pets — which my parents didn’t love me enough to invest in.

It was an AOL account, from the pioneering days of the Internet. This was when e-mail addresses were paid for monthly and the words “speed” and “Internet” didn’t belong in the same sentence. What e-mails would an elementary schooler have received? Still, the blue spectrum of AOL is as burnt into my memory as the excitement I felt when I saw I had a new message.

Unfortunately now when I look at my inbox, which consists of three accounts routed to my phone, I do so begrudgingly. I delete, ignore and respond — and almost always in that order. Sifting through usually takes longer than reading and responding to the important items.

It has to be asked: Is e-mail still working? And it’s not just whiny students like me asking this question.

In 2010, Symantec — the company behind Norton Antivirus — estimated that 92 percent of e-mail is spam. While this number is shocking, most of this is caught in increasingly advanced spam filters and doesn’t significantly curb efficiency.

Atos — an information technology firm with nearly 80,000 employees — audited its staff’s e-mail accounts in December. They found only 10 percent contained important information. In response, the company’s CEO announced Atos would phase out e-mail over the coming 18 months.

Instead, it’ll replace e-mail with phone conversations, face-to-face interactions and a business network tool — a sort of company Facebook, something many firms already have. It’s a telling sign when one of the world’s largest IT companies finds it prudent to leave e-mail in the dumpster of forgotten communication tools with fax machines and telegrams.

Other companies, however, are rethinking e-mail systems for reasons beyond efficiency. On Dec. 23, Volkswagen decided it would begin to turn on and shut off company BlackBerry e-mail services half an hour before and after work hours, respectively. This wasn’t just a case of a corporation gaining a sense of compassion. The move was a result of serious negotiation with labor unions.

Instant communication like e-mail has induced the mood that instant responses are expected at all hours of the day. That’s not a problem when returning a text from a friend, but it carries costly implications for businesses.

Imagine if someone dislikes his or her job. They don’t get the satisfaction many get from their work or maybe the management’s ineptitude isn’t as endearing as Steve Carell’s on “The Office.” For those who look forward to non-business hours and weekends, smartphones and e-mail provide a constant and probably unwanted tie to the office.

Job satisfaction is at a discouraging low in America. According to a 2010 Conference Board study, only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. Though data on happiness is always inexact and contested, the downward trend is alarming. When the study was conducted in 1987, job satisfaction was at 61.1 percent. With less distinction between work and downtime, it will continue to decrease.

Most companies are not Volkswagen. They continue to barrage employees with after-hours e-mails. Not surprisingly, this has already spelled trouble for many. The “e-mail as overtime” debate is popping up in courtrooms across America. In 2009, real estate giant CB Richard Ellis and mobile communications company T-Mobile both faced lawsuits from employees about after-hours communications.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act regulates overtime pay. The act itself is lawyer-y and complex. Two things, however, are easy to understand.

First, employers have legal obligation to know when their employees are working and pay them for the time. Second, FLSA is in some ways outdated — especially its overtime policy.

Some companies have attempted to work around the system. In 2008, ABC News attracted legal trouble when employees refused to sign a waiver stating they wouldn’t be paid for using company-issued BlackBerrys after hours. Employees can’t waive FLSA rights. If they could, all employers could bully workers into doing so — defeating the purpose of employee protection.

The precedent to decide if e-mails are even overtime is a debate in itself. In the 1940s, courts ruled that awarding overtime to employees performing work at home would be decided on a basis of de minimis. Judges have to decide the very minimum amount of work needed to qualify as compensational. Interpretation of de minimis has varied from judge to judge. Can the action be quantified and aggregated? Is it a matter of effort or time?

Even as it appears e-mail is going by the wayside, the problem needs to be addressed before more lawsuits complicate the matter. The Department of Labor needs to have more explicit and modern definitions of overtime law. Workers should know their rights and realize in most cases they aren’t obligated to keep working when they get home. Employers need to understand the risk of costly public lawsuits, work with employees instead of against them and explore alternative means of communication — even if they entail old-fashioned methods like actually speaking. In person.

Andrew Weiner can be reached at anweiner@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWeiner.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.