The ‘no emails outside office hours’​ law won’t work – so what’s the alternative?

Legislation in France came into effect on 1st January which stipulates that employees do not have to respond to any emails out of office hours. On paper it seems like a positive initiative for employees (and don’t get me wrong, I am all for that) but in reality I believe it’s doomed to fail…

Imagine the scenario… you receive an email from your boss at 11pm on a Saturday night labelled ‘urgent’. Do you answer it? Well if you are like me, you probably will. Law or no law.

Firstly though, lets understand exactly what the so-called “right to disconnect” law really entails. The legislation states that any company with more than 50 employees needs to have a clear policy for their workers about how they need to limit work-related technology usage outside the official office working hours. The reasoning behind it is very clear. The law is seeking to curtail work-related stress that increasingly permeates people’s personal time. Benoit Hamon, member of Parliament and former French education minister said:

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails: They colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down”

In principle, I wholeheartedly agree with the intent. Many of us are guilty of not switching off from work mainly due to the fact that our smartphones now rule our lives. Also we feel compelled to immediately answer any work related matter for fear of being chastised if we don’t. We also believe (rightly or wrongly) that by answering promptly that it may enhance our reputation / career prospects. And that is not a healthy way to live. For any of us. And given the recent example in Japan where an employee was literally worked to death we all need to be cognisant that our work does not consume our lives comprehensively.

However, as well intentioned and laudable as this initiative is, frankly I see too many flaws with the legislation which will ultimately see it fail to achieve its objectives. So why am I so cynical about this new law and, more importantly, is there a better solution?

In late 2015, I wrote an article entitled ‘Working 9 to 5 is no way to make a living’ where I explored why the traditional rigid working day simply doesn’t work for many employees (or employers for that matter) in the modern age. Netflix, for example, have dispensed with the archaic notion and opted for what they call their ‘freedom and responsibility culture’. In simple terms, that means no more fixed working hours and holiday allocations. Instead they replaced it with a no-policy. In other words, staff could take time off whenever they wished and for as long as they wanted. There was no need to ask for any approval and time sheets were eliminated. The employees themselves were the only ones to decide if they fancied a few hours off each day, take a week off on a whim or even a month if the urge compelled them. No rules. Netflix based their no-policy strategy upon one solitary factor. Trust.

Totally preposterous right?

Wrong. The scheme has been a resounding success. In an article by Huffington Post they have cited it as one of the pivotal reasons for the stratospheric success of Netflix and quoted senior analyst Sam Stern from Forrester Research on the matter:

“if you trust and empower people and give them a chance to rise to the higher expectations, the vast majority of people are able to do it”

Netflix is always eager to extol the virtues of their stratagem but are equally keen to add that it only works because it hires “fully formed adults”. The company then simply treats them as such by offering almost unlimited freedom to “take risks and innovate” without being constrained by complex layers of process.

Ah but I hear you saying that Netflix is an isolated example and no-one else adopts this ‘laissez faire’ attitude to the working day. Well you might be surprised to hear that Sir Richard Branson also believes that flexible working hours are preferable and introduced a similar scheme for Virgin staff in 2012.

According to Branson the less rigid attitude towards working hours has been enabled by increasingly sophisticated technology which effectively means people can work pretty much anytime and anywhere:

“the Netflix initiative had been driven by a growing groundswell of employees asking about how their new technology-controlled time on the job (working at all kinds of hours at home and/or everywhere they receive a business text or email) could be reconciled with the company’s old-fashioned time-off policy”

Fascinating to see how Branson has turned the problem of technology (i.e. the user being ‘always on’) as a way to pivot to harnessing its advantages via increased flexibility. According to Branson, the key to its success is a simple matter of quality versus quantity:

  “the focus should be on how much people get done rather than how much time they spend on it”

Let’s face it, the fact is that our business is increasingly becoming more global these days. And given the huge fluctuations in time zones we cannot be constrained by the traditional 9 to 5. Not only that but people also have their lives to lead and a more realistic approach to the working day could pay dividends for staff morale. Why can’t we allow them time during the day to spend with children, run errands, exercise or whatever as long as they make up the time later. Surely it would benefit both their physical and mental health too? As stated in the Netflix example, it’s really just a matter of trust. And if you don’t trust your employee’s then you seriously do have a problem and should ask yourself the question why you hired them in the first place?

In turn, imagine the benefits on society? To ensure this piece doesn’t become a book I will cite just one example – the ridiculousness of the commute. The time we waste sat in traffic, burning precious resources for no apparent reason and eroding our enthusiasm for the day ahead. Surely there is a better way?

In my opinion, introducing a ‘no email outside of working hours’ policy misses the point. It’s treating a symptom rather than the disease. That said, there is something in the “right to disconnect” but the real problem that needs addressing here is that we need to assess the validity of the traditional working day in the modern age and consider whether adopting a much more flexible way of working is a viable solution. Thankfully, I am not alone in this view. Olivier Mathiot, CEO of PriceMinister, a Paris-based online marketplace was quoted as saying:

“In France, we are champions at passing laws, but they are not always very helpful when what we need is greater flexibility in the workplace”

So what do you think? Is stopping emails outside of work practicable? Will it solve the problem it seeks to eradicate? Or do you agree that we need a radical overhaul of the working day? Let me know your thoughts…

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Steve Blakeman is Managing Director – Global Accounts for OMD based in London / Paris. He was named by LinkedIn as a Top 10 Writer for Marketing & Social for 2015 (Top Voices) and also ‘Agency Publisher of the Year’ for EMEA.

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