French workers seemingly have it made: 35-hour work weeks and a large amount of vacation each year. As of January 1, 2017, a law went into effect covering employees in companies with more than 50 employees. The "right to disconnect" law requires companies to designate hours when staff members may neither send nor respond to emails.
The law is designed to help employees who leave the office, but never quite leave the work, bound by an electronic tether with emails and texts that can continue well into off hours. The law's intent is to reestablish work-life balance. Will the law take hold and spread to other areas? Will workers be able to disconnect? Is there a right to disconnect, or, Should e-mail be off limits off hours?
E-Communication Consumes Time for Leaders
Bain & Company recently conducted a study of e-communications at two dozen global companies. Its findings indicate that senior executives are spending vast amounts of time processing (reading, sending and responding to) e-communications, including emails, instant messages, and other communications. Among Bain's findings:
- Senior leaders average 200 or more emails daily
- The typical front-line manager spends about eight hours each week sending, reading, and responding to e-communications
- The number of e-communications has grown every year since 2008. Today much of that e-communication occurs at night and over the weekend
- Twenty-five percent of those eight hours is spent dealing with unnecessary emails sent to a manager, while another 25 percent involved messages to which employees need not have replied
French labor lawyer, Patrick Thiebart, told National Public Radio that the long-term implications of not allowing employees to disconnect are significant.
"If an employee receives emails during all their weekends and at night until 11 p.m., then I can assure you that at a certain point in time, it can negatively impact his health."Implications of French law
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, one of the Bain study authors expressed skepticism with the new French law. Much of the e-communication, writes Michael Mankins, a Bain partner, may just get shifted to approved hours. If bosses and co-workers continue to over-communicate or fall into the "reply all" trap, the French law may only shift the problem.
"(I)f sending endless email chains is the way your organization gets things done, then you have no real choice but to adopt the ways of the tribe," Mankins writes. "In short, excessive e-communication is an organizational problem. It demands organizational solutions."Mankins argues that companies and their leaders need to address cultural issues related to e-communication. Companies need to evaluate how much burden they place on employees via texts and emails. There are ways to measure what he calls "organizational load," defined as the amount of time employees must spend reading and replying to emails sent from each executive.
It remains to be seen what the true impact of the French law will be. Companies and employees benefit, at least in the short term, by having employees accessible, and the same technologies do provide for flexibility when needed for everyone. The challenge is to find the right balance, if possible, between flexibility and freedom.