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Why France's Right to Disconnect Law is Misguided

Sketch image with work life balance written on it.

Could an attempt at gain­ing work-life bal­ance be a step in the wrong direction?

France has a famous­ly relaxed atti­tude toward work­ing hours, with an aver­age work­ing week of 35 hours and fre­quent two-hour lunch­es. It’s a coun­try that reg­u­lar­ly attracts a great amount of envy from exhaust­ed, over­worked Brits. As 2016 drew to a close, France once again proved its appre­ci­a­tion for its employ­ees when French work­ers won the legal right to avoid check­ing email out of ordi­nary work­ing hours. This has become known as France’s Right to Dis­con­nect” law.

At first glance, this move is an admirable one and a choice that shows clear respect for employ­ee work-life bal­ance. Such a law would pro­tect employ­ees from over­bear­ing boss­es and over­whelm­ing work­loads, which nobody could argue is a bad move.

How­ev­er, there is more to this sto­ry — and it could be argued that such a law flies in the face of mod­ern per­for­mance man­age­ment and gen­er­a­tional pref­er­ences to flex­i­ble work­ing hours.

What the Right to Dis­con­nect law states

The law impacts com­pa­nies of more than fifty peo­ple and makes it ille­gal for French employ­ers to force their staff to respond to work-relat­ed cor­re­spon­dence out­side of their con­tract­ed work hours. It is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the employee’s com­pa­ny to ensure that they do not feel under pres­sure to access work emails or doc­u­ments when at home or on holiday.

Bruno Met­tling, Direc­tor Gen­er­al of Orange, first put the idea for­ward and right­ly stat­ed that those employ­ees who get a suf­fi­cient break from their respon­si­bil­i­ties return to work restored, and there­fore per­form far bet­ter. Giv­en that 52% of French man­agers worked at home between 8pm and mid­night, dis­con­nect­ing from work­place respon­si­bil­i­ties was clear­ly becom­ing an issue. The law sought to resolve this work-life issue and allow employ­ees and man­agers to enjoy their down­time. In real­i­ty, the con­se­quences are not so simple.

Work-life bal­ance is fast becom­ing an out­mod­ed concept

The prob­lem with mak­ing laws respect­ing work-life bal­ance is it’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly clear that work-life bal­ance is a thing of the past. By its very nature, it neces­si­tates a strict divi­sion between work life and home life. How­ev­er, since the emer­gence of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy, con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion is pos­si­ble. We are able to take work home with us, but on the flip side of the coin, we don’t expect to have to sev­er all social ties as soon as we enter the office.

Our careers and our pri­vate lives are two crit­i­cal and mean­ing­ful aspects of our iden­ti­ties. Rather than keep­ing the two parts dis­tinct, it’s nat­ur­al that the two will begin to blend into one anoth­er. This is a grow­ing trend known as work-life inte­gra­tion and it is some­thing that France’s new law doesn’t take into account.

Work-life inte­gra­tion is becom­ing the norm

Work-life inte­gra­tion has emerged not only from the preva­lence of tech­nol­o­gy, but from our grow­ing demand for flex­i­ble work­ing. One study con­duct­ed by McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny found that both male and female mil­len­ni­als were more like­ly to accept a job offer if the com­pa­ny offered flex­i­ble work sched­ules. Flex­i­ble work­ing is also of val­ue to work­ing par­ents, who might need to leave the office at 2pm but might get back to work once the chil­dren are in bed. In this way, par­ents are inte­grat­ing two demand­ing aspects of their lives to suit them.

Increas­ing­ly, stud­ies are show­ing that employ­ees are inter­est­ed in check­ing in with work out of their con­tract­ed hours. One study showed that 77% of employ­ees took busi­ness calls or wrote reports on week­ends, or after their children’s bed­time. The same study found that 75% of time logs showed some­thing per­son­al dur­ing work hours, such as exer­cise or school vis­its. One third of Britons check their work email over the Christ­mas break, but anoth­er sur­vey showed that employ­ees spend an aver­age of 1.5 hours per day on social media — which is not as wor­ry­ing as it sounds, giv­en that the use of social media at work can actu­al­ly boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, morale and engage­ment.

British employ­ees work an aver­age of 38 days above their con­tract­ed hours per year. How­ev­er, it has also been shown that the aver­age British work­er spends a lot of their time on per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions, tea breaks or on oth­er non-work relat­ed mat­ters, equat­ing to an aver­age loss of 28 work days per year. In their life­time, the aver­age work­er will be late for work 141 times, but they will also clock over 9,000 hours of unpaid over­time. These sta­tis­tics demon­strate how life and work are blend­ing togeth­er and that inte­gra­tion, rather than bal­ance, is more suit­ed to mod­ern life.

How do we deal with work-life inte­gra­tion from a per­for­mance man­age­ment perspective?

Employ­ees should be relied upon to do their work and hit their tar­gets. This neces­si­tates cer­tain changes to your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem, but it is cer­tain­ly some­thing that is worth adapt­ing to.

Rather than keep­ing strict tabs on their work­ing hours and what they are doing while at the office, it is far more use­ful to judge employ­ee per­for­mance and progress based on impact and achieve­ment of goals. Employ­ees should care­ful­ly con­sid­er and write up their own SMART objec­tives. Once their man­ag­er has giv­en these objec­tives the go-ahead, deter­min­ing whether or not the employ­ee is slack­ing off or per­form­ing to stan­dard will be easy to track.

Com­pa­nies who are incor­po­rat­ing work-life integration

Many large con­glom­er­ates have made alter­ations to their per­for­mance man­age­ment process­es to keep step with mod­ern think­ing and HR trends, such as work-life inte­gra­tion. For exam­ple, com­pa­nies like Asana, Dell and Drop­box allow their employ­ees the flex­i­bil­i­ty to set their own sched­ules, with Drop­box even offer­ing unlim­it­ed paid time off. Net­flix is anoth­er notable exam­ple; it’s been mak­ing use of unlim­it­ed vaca­tion days for a num­ber of years and the process appears to be work­ing. Employ­ees don’t have their hours tracked, which cre­ates a cul­ture of account­abil­i­ty. The com­pa­ny man­ages this by mea­sur­ing what peo­ple get done; employ­ees who fail to pro­duce results don’t last long.

While it is clear that France’s law is well-inten­tioned, giv­en the grow­ing pref­er­ence towards flex­i­ble work­ing and work-life inte­gra­tion, the law may not only be redun­dant to mod­ern work­ing; it might fly in the face of progress and emerg­ing work­ing prac­tices. As tech­nol­o­gy advances fur­ther and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is fur­ther facil­i­tat­ed, 9 – 5 hours are like­ly to become a thing of the past, so rules gov­ern­ing con­tract­ed hours are not like­ly to be help­ful in the long run.

To find out how Clear Review can trans­form the effec­tive­ness of your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem, use our online book­ing sys­tem to book a per­son­al demo now.

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