France Regulates After Hours Work Email

Last week, the English-language media was abuzz with what appeared to be a new law banning email messages after hours in France. To some extent, the widespread reports were true, but there was also a lot of misinformation circulating in the English media too.

First, there was no new legislation passed. The news was old and referred to a labor agreement signed on April 1, 2016. Second, the actual legislation effected only a small percentage of workers and was far less extensive than most English-language news reports implied. The law in question stipulates that high-tech and consulting workers (about 250,000 autonomous employees whose contracts are based on days not hours work) have the right to log off after 13 hours of being available online and furthermore, have the right to one day off on the weekend. As such, there is no 6:00 pm cut-off in the law, as previously reported, and it is not illegal for employers to send emails–they just can’t expect an employee to respond during the protected times. Finally, in sharp contrast to most news reports, the email protections have less to do with France’s love of leisure and more to do with French companies attempting to respond to workers’ work/life balance in a global economy where people working in different time zones frequently infringe on workers’ ability to take downtime or even sleep.

Why the American Media Exaggerated the French Law

There are at least two reasons that the U.S. media and media outlets in other parts of the English-speaking world likely exaggerated the reach of the French legislation. First, the French have a reputation for leisurely working conditions. Yes, people work hard in France, but they do enjoy longer vacations and shorter work weeks than Americans and people in many other parts of the world. Leisure is taking seriously in France and as a result, so is work/life balance. For some outsiders, the French pace is considered too relaxed. For others, it is a point of envy. The mere suggestion that France was now regulating after hours work-related emails was a way for workers in other nations to both critique and celebrate France’s unique workplace culture.

It also seems likely, however, that the buzz around the law and its exaggeration in the English-language media had a lot to do with our own desire to get offline.  As Camille Preston observes in Rewired: How to Work Smarter, Live Better and Be Purposefully Productive in an Overwired World, we are reaching our breaking point: “Being overwired has its consequences. More and more studies are finding the way we use and overuse technology is actually hurting our professional productivity, our business and personal relationships, the way we live our lives–even our brains and our bodies.” Preston adds, “True productivity plummets when we are overwired.”  Following Preston, it seems likely that if the French law was both taken up and exaggerated by many American journalist, it may have much to do with our own desire to unplug and rethink how we are establishing and maintaining boundaries in today’s overwired world.

How Email Regulations Work

This raises an obvious question: Could regulating email regulations actually work? Some companies already have policies on the issue. At Volkswagen, servers stop routing emails a half hour after the end of employees’ shifts and start again a half hour before they return to work (exceptions are made for senior managers). Intel recently experimented with silent Tuesday mornings (all emails and voice messages were stopped). 45% of workers felt the experiment was successful and noted that it increased everything from productivity to work/life balance. At Daimler, vacation time is protected using a program called “Mail on Holiday.” If an email is sent to an employee during vacation, an automatic reply deletes it and send a message indicating that the employee is on vacation while also giving an alternative contact for any pressing matters. What all these initiatives suggest is that moving forward, in lieu of government legislation, workplaces will need to develop robust but realistic ways to regulate work-related communication demands after hours. After all, there is growing evidence that it is good for morale and retention and even good for productivity too.

January 9, 2017   Updated :January 9, 2017      

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