Why Luminary Labs CEO Sara Holoubek discourages emails after 6 p.m.

By Tina Irgang

Sara Holoubek

Sara Holoubek

A few years ago, Sara Holoubek noticed that employees at her company were making a habit of exchanging emails at night.

“Maybe someone would send an email at 10:30, and 10 people would answer,” says Holoubek, who is founder and CEO of Luminary Labs. The seven-year-old consultancy works with global corporations, nonprofits and federal agencies on strategy and organizational design.

Holoubek recalls that when Luminary Labs first started, there was a lot of pressure to attract and retain clients, which meant always being “on.” But in recent years, with the company more established, it became apparent that a lot of the late-night emails employees were sending could have waited until the next day.

“The late-night stuff was rarely critical,” says Holoubek. However, the mere fact that colleagues were emailing about a matter after hours created the perception that there was an emergency, she notes. This, in turn, meant unnecessary stress.

So 18 months ago, Luminary Labs rolled out a new policy to staff: The company would operate on a 9-to-6 schedule from now on. After 6 p.m., everyone was expected to stay offline.

“First, everyone thought we were absolutely crazy,” says Holoubek. “But then we realized that we could all be more efficient.”

The rollout of the new policy certainly wasn’t always smooth. “Once, I emailed the team: ‘I’ve been traveling a lot, and I’m going to be emptying by inbox tonight. Please don’t feel any obligation to reply.’ Within five minutes, another team member wrote a similar email. So I said to myself, ‘You idiot. You just sent a message that leadership can ignore the rules.’ I realized that I also had to abide by the rules.”

Luminary LabsGhost workers and de-programmers

Luminary Labs’ policy does allow for exceptions. For example, if employees want to take some gym time one morning each week and work a slightly later schedule, the company allows that.

Also, if employees feel inspired to get work done after hours, Luminary Labs won’t stop them. However, in those cases, Holoubek wants people to “ghost work” — “do work, but don’t leave a trace. … It’s just being mindful of when someone wants to receive emails.”

If a team member is consistently working late, the company views it as a sign that it might be time to sit down with that employee and see what’s going on. “If we see somebody working at night, we see they have too much work, or they’re struggling with something,” says Holoubek. “It becomes a signal for how we can all do better.”

After-hours emailing now has become exceedingly rare, she says. The biggest offenders tend to be new hires. “For example, I had a client services recruit who spent seven years at McKinsey. The assumption there is that if they’re working 40 hours, they’re not doing important work,” says Holoubek. “During the first six months of someone’s tenure at Luminary Labs, I have to do this thing called ‘de-programming,’ where I have to convince them we mean it when we tell them to shut off.”

Making a shorter week work

Here’s the obvious question: If Luminary Labs cut back on its hours, is it getting the work done?

The answer is yes, although this required a few operational adjustments to make everyone’s day more efficient.Luminary Labs

For example, the company changed the default time allotted for meetings on its calendar — rather than scheduling meetings for an hour or two, it went down to 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the complexity of the matter being discussed.

“It really comes down to time management and right-sizing the job,” says Holoubek. “We have these weekly, hour-long conference calls with [one of our clients,] the U.S. Department of Education. There’s a big team on this project, but not everybody is in the meeting the whole hour. They can work on other things, rather than sitting and listening to a call that’s not relevant to them.”

Luminary Labs also had to adjust its rate card and manage expectations with clients as to when deliverables would be completed. However, this doesn’t seem to have hurt the company, which works on major projects with NASA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AARP.

“The programs are incredibly transformative; point being that you can have McKinsey-quality work — you can have big, meaningful programs — and still have balance,” says Holoubek.

At the same time, Luminary Labs’ policy on after-hours work has boosted employee satisfaction and been a valuable recruitment tool.

“We want people to actually have balance. We want them to have time to date,” says Holoubek. “Every business has an impact on our society. Do we not want Americans to be healthy and have social lives?”

A Neat Idea highlights unconventional policies, perks or products that local companies are offering. To be considered for a Neat Idea, email tina@smartceo.com.