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A new law in France that went into effect on Jan. 1 allows workers the “right to disconnect" from after-hours work emails. The legislation addressed a problem that is not uniquely French: how to control the flow of work spilling into time away from the office, especially when smartphones let people check email on the fly and more employees work remotely. Larissa Barber, PhD, is a psychologist and assistant professor at Northern Illinois University who researches employee work-life interface with technology, among other areas. Here are her thoughts on the French law, if it could be enacted in the United States, and how employers and employees can support a "right to disconnect" regardless of any law.

1. What is your opinion about France's new email law?

From a worker rights perspective, this “right to disconnect” law is a great first step in addressing a widespread issue in the modern workplace. Many labor laws haven’t kept up with the changing nature of work. Working long hours at a physical workspace on site has been replaced with “boundaryless” work that spills over into remote workspaces, like our homes. While working remotely can have lots of other benefits for employees, it comes with its own set of challenges to managing a reasonable workload. This law requires that companies (with more than 50 employees) establish predictable “on” versus “off” time hours for their employees, which can be helpful for kicking off discussions to achieve those ends.

2. Is there a downside to this law?

There are certainly a few downsides. First, laws are only the first step. Laws can send a powerful societal message about what we value from employer-employee relationships and protect workers, but companies are ultimately responsible for creating and maintaining a healthy workplace culture. There’s a pretty consistent research pattern suggesting formal policies regarding work-life balance issues are not effective on their own. Informal practices and supportive supervisor-employee relationships are the most powerful way to address these issues. Second, research shows that employee control is critical for increasing feelings of work-life balance. If employees feel like they can’t respond when they want to—such as during hours that were initially agreed on as “off-time”—then the good intentions of the law can backfire. Lastly, the law really only appears to apply to emails. However, there are a variety of ways employees can be contacted during nonwork time, like phone or chat. This means the law is overly focused on one mode of communication rather than the broader issue of disconnecting in general. This can undermine the effectiveness of the law, as companies can choose to merely alter their communication medium instead of directly dealing with the underlying communication issue.

3. Could such a law ever happen or work here in the U.S., even at the state level?

The U.S. could adopt a similar law, but it would be challenging. The current trend in our political environment has not been supportive of worker rights in general, and these email laws in other countries have been met with skepticism in the U.S. There are also misconceptions of what these laws entail; for example, there’s an assumption that the French law is setting specific hours for companies. In fact, the law is merely requiring that companies establish predictable hours that employees need to be responsive to emails. A law about policy presence instead of content is actually a lot more flexible than people think. Moreover, research on “predictable time off” demonstrates that policy discussions around “ground rules”—when done collaboratively between work teams—are beneficial for helping people disconnect and remain productive.

4. Is legislating what happens when away from the office effective for either the employer or employees?

Regulations can be great for sending a broader societal message of valuing healthy work practices and avoiding exploitative ones. Regulations could also be useful way to get discussion started about setting ground rules for technology expectations, which that many companies may not have done without prompting. Additionally, worker rights laws can give workers more “real control” over their work. In an individualistic society like the U.S., we assume workers have complete control over whether they respond or not already, but that’s not completely true. There are real punishments for not complying with 24/7 expectations, including lack of promotion and even termination. In times of high job insecurity, workers feel they must stay connected to keep their jobs, regardless of the actual quality of their work. Thus, such laws could be effective here in the U.S. too. However, these types of laws won’t ultimately be effective if employees and employers do not see some sort of flexibility built in or long-term value to their organization. They must feel like they can periodically change the communication “ground rules” as needed in a way that respects workers, but also works for changing demands in the workplace. In sum, simply relying on a regulation to fix a multi-faceted and deep cultural issue won’t work on its own. Organizational leaders have the most power in setting the tone for healthy workplace practices.

5. Other than legislation, what can employers and employees do to keep telepressure under control?

Telepressure is driven heavily by what we call “social norms” in the work environment. That is, what are the expectations and common emailing patterns of your work team and supervisor? The typical issue is that people don’t discuss these expectations, we tend to just do what others are doing in the workplace to fit in. Having explicit discussions about expectations for “on” versus “off” times is the most effective way to help get telepressure under control. Additionally, these times may not be the same for everyone on the work team. Although some hours may overlap for all team members, some employees may need to respond only during the day while others prefer evening or other specific windows of time. These hours could also change across time for a single worker based on life circumstances (small kids at home, caring for an elderly parent). Thus, availability expectations should be periodically updated and discussed. While regulations are good for asking employers to both have these discussions and convey expectations clearly, we don’t want to undermine their effectiveness by requiring specific or inflexible hours.

Bonus Question: How do you personally (an an expert and as someone who has to balance her own work-life) manage email outside work.

I actually do very well putting my research into practice when it comes to my own email management! I feel in control of email and my work-life balance in general, but mostly because I understand it something that needs to be actively managed. I regularly convey explicit ground rules for when others can respect responses from me. I avoid telepressuring others by putting specific deadlines in my email requests so people know I don’t expect an immediate response. With my research team, I discuss how email communications are mostly distinct from actual work performance. Being overly responsive can potentially take away focus on other important tasks and reduce efficiency. The most important thing I’ve found is that once you set the rules, you need to stick to them. If you regularly break your own rules, then no one will take them seriously.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2017 listed from newest to oldest.

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