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France Says “Non” to After-Hours Emailing

By Dennis Jones

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Leave it to France, the birthplace of the 35-hour workweek, to pioneer new labor regulations that will significantly curtail the amount of time employees have to stay online for work. What am I talking about? Well, on January 1, French employees got the legal right to avoid work emails outside of business hours. But before you set up shop on the Champs-Élysées, you might want to read on.

So what’s in the fine print? According to the new law, French companies who employ more than 50 people now have to guarantee a right to disconnect to their workers. In other words, employees don’t have to stay tied to their smartphones waiting for company emails after they leave the office.

How will this be enforced? Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Companies will be policing themselves. It rests on their shoulders to develop protocols, essentially charters of good conduct, which establish normal working hours, so as to ensure that work-related emailing doesn’t bleed over into non-work hours.

On first glance, the right to disconnect would appear to introduce one more, onerous labor market regulation. However, the regulation is part of a slew of new laws that the French state has promulgated to improve labor market flexibility and tamp down on chronic unemployment in France, by allowing employers to hire and fire workers more easily. While those larger labor reforms have been quite controversial, the right to disconnect itself has been welcomed by employers and labor groups alike.

What we’re seeing is a major blowback against the dominance of a 24/7, always-connected work culture. Some global companies have already implemented their own after-hours’ email policies. For instance, Volkswagen servers won’t send out emails from company-owned smartphones during off-hours, between 6:15 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays and weekends.

Similarly, back in 2012, European IT services company, Atos, made headlines when CEO Thierry Breton announced that he would ban internal emails altogether. His company had conducted a “Wellbeing at Work” program, which had found that employees, on average, spent between 15 and 20 hours a week answering and deleting emails.

Findings like these prove that being slavishly devoted to our smart devices doesn’t necessarily correlate with higher rates of employee productivity. Rather, the fact that our work now follows us home, even into bed, has been shown to be a key contributor to burnout, as new studies confirm that people hit a serious productivity wall under enormous strain.