Staffing Management

Turning Off Email, Turning Up Productivity

By Anne Field

Feb. 29, 2012

Between all those emails, texts and tweets, it’s a wonder the small business owner gets any work done at all. Jessica Rovello has a better way.

To rev up her efficiency, the co-founder and president of Arkadium, a 10-year-old game developer in Manhattan, devised her own homegrown system for responding to the deluge of emails she receives. She also figured out how to curb employees’ constant use of cellphones in meetings. Rovello says her system now generally works without a hitch—and her productivity has shot up.

“Email gives people a form of business attention-deficit disorder, so that whatever comes into your inbox trumps anything else you’re working on,” said Rovello, whose 140-employee company has less than $15 million in revenues.

It all started four years ago, while Rovello was on a three-month maternity leave. “I was going to have the same level of responsibility I had before, but I also wanted to carve out time to be a mom,” she explained.

The answer, she realized, lay in her time management. “Email just bled into every single moment of my day.”

When she returned to work, Rovello read all the books, blogs and articles she could find on the subject. Over a period of about two weeks, she devised the basics of a system. She would schedule four times throughout the day to spend 15 to 30 minutes reading and responding to email: during her commute to work in the morning, so she could make sure there weren’t any important communications from her Ukraine office; then at 10:30 a.m., providing a chance for her to get some work done as soon as she arrives at 9:30; after lunch, at about 1:30 p.m.; and finally at 5:30. And she would turn off her Outlook notification “to keep myself honest,” she added.

It’s an approach that, in fact, is supported by current research. A recent study by Oklahoma State University researchers found that the optimal schedule for checking email is four times a day.

Then there was the matter of how to handle each message. Rovello decided to start at the top, so she would have to deal only with the most recent communications in a thread. Then, she would take one of four actions: replying to anything that needed an immediate response, forwarding messages that could be handled by somebody else, deleting items that didn’t warrant her attention or flagging the rest for later consideration.

As for instant messaging, that doesn’t fall under the four-times-a-day schedule. But, according to Rovello, her email system has affected those communications as well. “People think before they IM me,” she said. “They stop and decide whether they can figure it out themselves.” Indeed, Rovello has found that employees now often hold onto matters until their weekly one-on-one scheduled conferences.

Rovello also revved up the productivity of meetings. For her first few sessions, she asked that employees place their cellphones in the middle of the table. After that, she set a rule that anyone who had an urgent need to have their phone had to explain that to the group. Otherwise, their phones had to be off.

For Rob Hellmann, an adjunct instructor at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Rovello’s general approach is a good one. “The important principle is that you have to shut your email down for a period of time every day so you can get your work done,” he said. He makes sure not to check his email for 90 minutes each day, but not always at the same time.

According to Ari Meisel, co-founder of Less Doing, a Manhattan firm that helps clients increase their efficiency, there are also numerous technology tools Rovello can use to streamline her email system even further. To name one example: adding a sentence in her e-mail signature explaining that she checks her email four times a day, but that urgent matters can be sent to AwayFind, a service that routes emergency messages by voice or text.

Even without those tools, however, Rovello says she’s been able to think more strategically and get more done. Last year, for example, she found the time to create a course for her staff on the best practices for hiring. “As a result,” she said, “I’ve been able to hire exceptional talent.”

Filed by Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email

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