On January 1, 2017, France introduced the ‘Right to Disconnect’ legislation, which aimed to create a healthier balance between employees’ work and home lives. Companies with more than 50 employees had to start negotiations to give their workers a “right to disconnect from the use of digital tools” to ensure “observance of rest time and leave as well as of personal and family life”.
This meant defining what rights employees have to ignore work communications on their smartphones and laptops during non-working hours. The overuse of such devices has been blamed for a series of ills, from burnout to sleeplessness.
Much of the law was inspired by a 2015 report on digital transformation and quality of life at work by Bruno Mettling, HR Director at telecoms group Orange, for the former French Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri.
“The mass deployment of new work tools, notably smartphones and tablets, is, for most employees, the most obvious effect of digital transformation,” Mettling tells Observe.
“The number of smartphones has increased sixfold since 2008, while 90 percent of executive-level workers now have access to a laptop in the workplace. The ‘right to disconnect’ is ultimately a means of enshrining labour protections in a changed working environment in which technology has become indispensable.”He explains that this is likely to affect the work/life balance and even the health and stress levels of workers, notably executives. “The fact that employees keep connected even during vacations and all weekend is a health issue for themselves but also for the companies,” Mettling adds. “Moreover, professionals who find the right balance between private and work life perform far better in their job than those who arrive shattered.”
How viable, though, is such a law in today’s ever-connected world? Sylvie Magnen, Tax Partner and part of the French Executive Committee of EY as ‘Talent Leader’, says the need for such legislation in France may be a surprise to some. “There is a reputation of the French worker as always being on holiday or strike and working a 35-hour week,” she states. “But the reality is that we have one of the highest global productivity rates. The 35-hour week is only theoretical.” She explains that in France it is common to see 80 per cent of employees working until 8pm.
“Digitalisation means that when we get home there are emails we must answer straight away,” she states. “There is no chance to rest, even on holiday.” Bernard Salt, Partner at KPMG in Australia, believes such practices are global. “Work is marauding into our personal lives. Even when we are in a bus queue, we can’t resist looking at our emails,” Salt says. “You think you need to answer an email when it arrives, as there will be problems later on if you don’t. Also, it makes us feel important, constantly in demand.” Salt believes it damages productivity and creativity. “If we don’t disconnect, there will be a price to pay,” he warns. However, EY’s Magnen does not believe ‘right to disconnect’ will make an immediate difference. “The new legislation is just to give an option to an employee, it doesn’t mean they have to disconnect,” she says.
What the law will do, she believes, is give strength to the developing debate. “It will push corporates and employees to discuss new ways of working,” she says.
“Often employers are not conscious of the stress they are putting on their employees.”Some companies are already confronting this problem. French insurer Axa and nuclear power company Areva have already granted a right to disconnect. Areva set its policy back in 2012, asking employees, not to email between 8pm and 8am on their days off. “We wanted to negotiate a general agreement on the quality of life at work. This included the use of new technologies,” said Philippe Thurat, Areva’s diversity and work-life balance manager, in an interview with USA Today. “The idea was not so much to establish a right to switch off but rather to address the topic of a healthy use of emails and set clear boundaries.”
In Germany, Volkswagen has blocked out-of-hours emails and Daimler has introduced a voluntary system automatically deleting emails received over holidays. US web developer Reliable PSD has introduced a scheme where staff only answer emails for an hour in the morning and an hour at the end of the day. “This has boosted productivity and creativity,” says co-founder Louisa Levit.
Global PR firm Edelman’s office in Toronto, Canada encourages no work emails between 7pm and 7am. “We implemented it based on input from employees who were overwhelmed by the volume of emails they were receiving,” general manager Scott Evans told Global News. “People in general, including our clients, were highly supportive.”
Salt believes more companies will follow suit. “The French are on to something. We will see more policies led by responsible Chief Executives and HR teams. We need to mentally disconnect from work and stop it invading our private life.” Mettling believes the debate has moved swiftly on since his report. “We have come a long way. I was delighted that the Italian Labour Minister came to the Orange HQ at the beginning of the year to talk about the digital agreement Orange signed with Trade Unions. Digital transformation, universal by nature, will be what we make of it.”
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