Will The Right to Disconnect From Out-Of-Hours Work Email Spread Worldwide?

02/15/2017 12:26 pm ET

Microsoft proudly promotes Office 365 subscriptions as a business-enabler that allows everyone to work anywhere, anytime, on any device. Although advances in technology have given employees the tools to produce more, more of the time, some are vying to safeguard our ever-shrinking time disconnected from digital tech. In France, lawmakers introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ meant to stem the incursion of employers on employee out-of-office hours.

The Fear of Digital Burnout

Whether you work an office job, freelance, or own your own company, the experience of being swarmed by email well past 5:00 pm and feeling compelled to respond is a pervasive phenomenon. It cuts into family, personal and down time and more fundamentally, into what little space we have away from digital technology.

This is particularly pronounced in workers whose employers demand an always-on approach, even after work hours. At its height, this degree of connectivity causes digital burnout.

The French government has addressed this problem with a ‘right to disconnect’ law, which took immediate effect on January 1st. The new employment law requires French companies with more than 50 employees to create new policies for their employees to limit work-related technology usage outside the office.

The Workaround

A new law doesn’t necessarily change workplace culture and practice. As employees, we can often feel that commitment to an employer is judged by our flexibility and availability to the company. A standard job interview question is, 'What would you do if you received an urgent phone call on the weekend?'

Another issue is the legal workaround. For example, most French workplace laws affect businesses with 50 or more employees. Many French companies opt to employ only 49 people in avoidance of crippling legislations.

And before blaming nefarious company heads and employers, as consumers we must acknowledge our role in this cycle. We too are to blame. Our thirst for instant gratification and on-demand services such as Uber dramatically increased our expectations of immediacy, which in turn increased employer’s expectations of employees.

The technology itself is not wholly to blame either. In fact, there is technology available with machine learning and AI capabilities that could very well obviate the need for always-on employees after work hours; or at the very least, significantly reduce the hours spent on work outside the office.

The Hidden Benefits of Extra-office Work

In truth, the ability to work outside the office is a new phenomenon. Depending on your office culture, you no longer need to feel guilty about leaving the office early since you can catch up on your workload in the evening. There is greater flexibility now than ever before.

This way, if your child gets out of school early, or gets sick, or you want to meet up with family or friends, you can do so without compunction or retribution. It’s a freedom granted by the technology and an evolving belief that our lives should not be reduced to work. Yes, there are concession to make, but are they really as terrible as they appear?

Furthermore, I wonder how many of the champions of this law will actually use their time to play with their children or engage in meaningful, disconnected activities, rather than escaping into the digital world. It’s not to say the law is a bad idea, but I question the plausibility of its effects.

Any meaningful change on this score must come from the individual and from the company culture. A law can only go so far.

In Sum

French lawmakers implemented a ‘right to disconnect’ law to prevent employers with over 50 employees from keeping their employees always on through work emails and the like.

The goal is to militate against digital burnout, which is associated with sleeplessness, depression, and other morbidity.

As the concept of a 9-5 desk job is turned on its head by the ubiquity of digital technology, the questions remain of whether employees will actually use the additional time to disconnect, whether workplace culture will allow for this law to materialize, and what people at the individual-level will do to avoid digital burnout?

What are your thoughts on this controversial French legislation? Do you think it solves the universal problem of always-on, out of the office? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.

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