No self-respecting businessperson would be caught without their trusty smartphone. Cloud computing and digital convergence have made it easier to carry work with us wherever we go, turning phones into vital business tools.
But for all the advantages this brings, it has become increasingly hard to escape our working lives. Email alerts at home bring us back into the business mindset, with the result that we find it tough to ever switch off completely.
In France, a new law is aiming to change the modern ‘always on’ mindset. Section 55 of the Labour Act requires that companies with more than 50 employees will negotiate periods with unions when workers will not be required to answer emails.
While there is no set time period, the expectation is that it will be applied as a ‘soft law’. Workers will no longer be required to respond to emails out of work hours - as has been the case at some growing companies - or chastised for not doing so.
This is great news for many employees. The right to leisure is fiercely protected in France, which boasts a shorter working week and longer holidays than many of its continental neighbours. Many argue this balance enhances employees’ ability to work, meaning fewer wasted hours in the office feeling tired or unmotivated.
But some observers and businesses have concerns that this lack of flexibility and responsiveness will make French businesses less competitive. The cause is noble, but at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high, having a reputation internationally as being unresponsive may not be helpful.
Some companies may find it downright impossible. International dealings introduce the issue of time zones, where communication often has to take place at odd hours. This could be circumvented by applying email-free hours over lunch or at other times, but it’s an inelegant solution.
Thanks to the 50 employee minimum, the measure won’t apply to most startups. The realities of running a small business sometimes impinge on normal working hours. This ability to communicate and act quickly can set them apart from less mobile corporations, and that is preserved by the new law. But some still wonder why the government has to get directly involved, instead of introducing incentives or other schemes to simply encourage this behaviour.
What’s notable is that this law was actually fostered by communications giant Orange. Not all large businesses are against the idea, as highlighted by major French insurer Axa and German car manufacturer Volkswagen, who have had similar policies for several years. Companies are starting to take statistics about employee burnout seriously, and email hours represent a simple measure to try and address this impending crisis.
The law could represent an opportunity to make headway in this area. The need to renegotiate with unions could turn it into an impetus for further improvements. Introducing a whole suite of changes to employee user experience, holidays and remote working would certainly be a good PR move. But it might also foster even greater benefits to efficiency and effectiveness, reducing sick leave and enhancing creativity to drive innovation.
Ultimately it seems the French government sees this move as more of a conversation starter, designed to encourage this sort of reflection on modern practices. The flexibility and exemptions mean it will likely be applied loosely, and simply gives workers some leeway with employers. This is a conversation that needs to be had across the world, and it makes sense that the French are the ones to start it.
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