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Is France’s bid to ban out-of-hours work email fanciful?

Should we be forced to work at home?

How often do you spend your day going from meeting to meeting, only to settle into an evening tackling an overflowing email inbox? Well, you may wish that you worked in France, where the government has put forward a law that puts an end to out-of-hours emailing.

The proposed labour reform plans to introduce the “right to disconnect”. If passed, it will require companies to set standards outlining when staff are not obliged to respond to emails.

Of course, the issue of responding to work emails out of hours is not new. We know that constant connectivity to work can have negative consequences, such as stress, anxiety, and work encroaching on home life. As a result, many companies have started to rethink their 24/7 connectivity. For example, Volkswagen made headlines by switching off servers that send emails to employees outside of working hours to prevent stress and burnout, while Daimler implemented an auto-delete policy for emails that arrive while employees are on leave.

However, what might worry employers even more is the impact of constant connectivity on their employees’ productivity, creativity, and ability to focus. For example, did you know that the mere presence of your phone near you can distract you? This is because your phone represents limitless possibilities for connections.

And there’s more – if you have a tendency to check emails late at night on your phone or tablet, beware: research shows that this can have consequences well into the next day, as your phone impairs your sleep and you start work the next day already depleted.

Not a real break.

All of this has fuelled a drive for disconnection from technology, which can be seen in the growing trend of the digital detox. The blogosphere is awash with people extolling the benefits of taking a digital sabbatical, and another somewhat ironic trend is the use of productivity apps, such as the Freedom app, to help people switch off and focus. Camp Grounded takes the digital detox even further: a summer camp for adults, it encourages participants to leave technology at the gate and swap constant connectivity for outdoor activities.

Does this sound overly drastic, a bit new-ageish? Perhaps. But the benefits are clear: disconnection from technology in favour of immersion in nature for a few days helps to increase performance on tasks requiring creativity and problem solving; skills that are essential in a knowledge economy.

Can technology be controlled?

However, a digital detox may only be available to those in secure positions who have no fear of losing their jobs. And even the ability to make use of a “right to disconnect” outside of work hours may be easier in theory than in practice.

Many people do not have a fixed working pattern, and indeed working preferences vary – for some, emailing late at night is convenient, rather than stressful. These kinds of issues also vary hugely depending on a company’s sector, and on the location of its customers and competitors. A government-introduced blanket ban cannot account for these variations.

It also raises bigger questions around privacy and workers’ autonomy to manage their digital connections in whatever way they want. For example: how will employers manage those who continue to email outside of the set hours? Will there be penalties? Who will monitor emailing patterns and is it okay to do so?

Lastly, the speed of technological progress is not matched by government regulation. The proposed French regulation would come into effect in 2018. By then, will we still be as concerned with emails? New systems, enterprise social networks and apps used by companies such as Slack, are already transforming how people communicate at work. It is doubtful that the regulation will be flexible enough to cope with new developments.

So, are there merits in the French proposal? Yes, if the new regulation gives employees the power to control their level of connectivity. Yes, if it reduces expectations of employees to be constantly available regardless of actual need. And yes, if it leads to conversations about facilitating different working styles.

Currently, there is no proposed penalty for violating the “right to disconnect” and companies will comply on a voluntary basis. The real value of the reform therefore lies not in its ability to regulate constant connectivity, but in potentially generating conversations between employers and employees about what their culture of connectivity should be.

If the reform leads to such conversations, then it may be a useful model for other countries to observe. If, however, the reform hampers the ability of French businesses to compete and does not deliver a positive impact on people’s work-life balance, then other countries should not follow suit.

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