By inexorable osmosis, since the advent of the smartphone in the early 1990s, emails have followed workers into every corners of their lives and at all hours. Once upon a faraway time, people left their offices for the day, put on their coats and went home. They did not have to think about their work until the next morning, bar the very occasional (and unusual) phone call. When they went on holiday, they were not only uncontactable in every sense of the word, they were not plagued with guilt about not checking inboxes every half an hour, nervous to be nowhere near a wifi spot. They actually switched off, relaxed, took a real vacation. Now, for millions this is simply not possible.
The ping of an incoming message is enough to ruin many a meal, an evening out, a rendezvous with friends, or even a date. Having to turn attention to urgently deal with a work crisis at any time of the evening, up to and sometimes beyond midnight, is common. As in the movie The Devil Wears Prada where the Anne Hathaway character has to jump every time her employer contacts her, even if it is to help finish the boss’s children’s homework, her own life is gradually ground down to a round-the-clock subservience. It is small wonder in her final symbolic act she throws her phone into a fountain. It has become the instrument of tyranny.
Now France is the first country to attempt to do something about this problem, by introducing a ban on work emails after 6pm and before 9am. The rules are to be enforced to protect those who work in the digital and consultancy sectors. This includes, interestingly, workers for Google and Facebook, as well as large international firms like Deloittes. The deal, signed by both sides, means employees have to agree to turn off their phones and employers have to understand that they cannot expect a response, as staff are not supposed to check messages. For some people, pretty much addicted to their devices, this could be akin to an enforced sobriety order. For others, it will be a huge blessing.
Anyone who has ever been in the middle of cooking a meal or bathing a child when a conference call is suddenly and unexpectedly announced, or has sat out a movie or a play, cramped in a corner of the lobby taking notes, will surely agree, enough is enough. It is time that some regulation is brought to bear on this never-ending intrusion into private time, and the blurring of lines between work and life is brought back into focus.
The Chairman of the General Confederation of Managers in France, Michel de la Force, agrees. He has seen how employees have become exposed to much longer hours due to their portable devices and how this “digital working time” is both expected, but unpaid. Technology has radically altered the length of the working day but this has not been reflected in contracts or terms and conditions. He admits that some emailing outside of office hours may have to be allowed with the new scheme, but hopes it will only be necessary in “exceptional circumstances.”
In Britain, the Working Time Regulations are supposed to prevent anybody from having to work over a 48 hour week. They were drafted in the 1990s just before mobile phones became so ubiquitous and therefore they do not take into account the many extra hours often now spent on out-of-work time emails. They probably seem draconian to the French who have a 35-hour week, and crazy to all those who never stop working. Although these regulations were designed to be wide-ranging they already include a lot of exclusions, and this would be likely to be the same were email time ban zones to be enforced. Where work time is not measured and people are their own bosses, the law does not apply. Certain jobs like lawyers and investment bankers are used to working at unsociable hours and could not manage if they did not.
Alief Rezza, an oil analyst who lives in Norway, is one professional who thinks an email ban is impossible. He expects to check his email as long as the stock market remains open somewhere in the world, and apart from the hours he is asleep, he is always on alert.
Some workers find it hard even to admit to needing sleep. It has become a badge of honor in many industries to be seen to be responding as late into the night as is humanly feasible, as a proof of hard work and dedication to duty. Indeed, not to respond, can be weakness. “Did you not see my email?” is an accusation that is hard to deny when all are aware that email is ever-present. Despite not all emails demanding an instant reply, the only way to find out is to open and read them all. It makes some feel important and needed in their organization to be on the ball at all times, and without even realizing it, they have become wedded to their job, 24/7 to the point where not receiving any email bothers them more.
Although France is the first country to tackle the thorny issue, one company in Germany has already tested similar rules. Since December 2011 Volkswagen shuts down its servers a half an hour after the last shift has finished and they only re-start them 30 minutes before they return again in the morning. No Volkswagen worker is in any danger of getting a work email to disrupt their evening, or run the risk of rattling the boss by an unanswered mail.
In some professions this could be disastrous, as remaining in touch is vital. The media, government, finance and law sectors all function on working hours that are long and fluid. This can even be to people’s advantage at certain times, as those not tied to office hours and strictures can be flexible as to how and when they choose to concentrate. Frequent flyers, for example, can use a long plane trip to get through a mass of work. A ban on email could harm these new and organic work methodologies, argues Ksenia Zheltoukhova, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Zheltoukhova thinks that education of managers is the better approach, and encouraging a healthier respect for work/life balance.
Constantly glancing down at a phone, however discreetly, is a modern form of rudeness, and whatever the worker thinks about his loyalty to (or anxiety) about his employer, he is also offending those he spends time with, if focus is always elsewhere. It is a dilemma recognized by so many. In some countries, it is culturally more acceptable to be continually distracted. To be “switched on” all the time is a sign of status and savvy. It is hard now to see how these sorts of people, happily sitting up all night replying to emails, could ever have existed in the old “go home and shut the door” era.
Figures on French longevity regularly show them to be one of the longest-lived nations, despite all that wine and cheese, but they are also one of the most productive. With the strictly enforced 35-hour week and this new ban on after-work email, it begs the question, do they know something other nations don’t? Their life satisfaction is also very high. Perhaps acting as if the smartphone had never been invented really is the key to health and happiness.