Changes proposed to France’s famously inflexible employment laws by French president François Hollande have prompted an outcry among students and unionists and even the barricading of schools by pupils. But among the raft of changes to working practices is the liberating notion that employees should have the right to disconnect: to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt.
There is much to like about it. First, it recognises the massive impact the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile internet has had on our working lives. In as much as work emails, diaries and contacts are on a smartphone in our pocket, to some extent we are never truly “out of the office”. The proposal seeks to counter this in legislation, not to leave it to corporate custom and practice.
Second, the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity.
Third and most importantly, it makes the employer at least partly responsible for managing this intrusive technology and its effects on employees. There is a recognised paradox, whereby technology allows flexibility over when and where we work, but at the same time acts as a leash that chains us to our (virtual) desks. For too long this has been seen as something employees themselves should manage.
The research into work-life balance my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that achieving the right balance has become another “life crisis”. It is one that is fed by endless media articles and self-help books, and one that is almost certainly unresolvable by the individual as so much of the pressure comes from bosses and colleagues at work. What we’ve found is that there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations.
So congratulations to the French for taking this particular taureau by the cornes. But is their proposed approach through new legislation the right answer?
As far as it goes
There are three ways digital media and mobile technology have affected our lives that isn’t acknowledged by legislation, which is concerned only with time spent connected to work. In our research we’ve sought to highlight the creeping effects of “digi-housekeeping”: those endless technology maintenance tasks that we engage in – updating software, syncing devices, fighting technical problems – which often takes place outside of office hours and doesn’t appear on time sheets. None of this is accounted for by legislative approaches.
Nor does legislation address the way in which the use of social media for work may intrude into our privacy. When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.
What’s more, because the French legislation presumes an employee-employer relationship, it entirely ignores the anxieties of the self-employed, as those taking part in our research told us. While those working for themselves have always had to work hard, social media has put added pressure on them to be constantly online and accessible to maintain their business. We need more imaginative interventions that will address the needs of specific groups such as these.
What are 21st century working lives like?
The French legislation is important primarily because it makes clear the responsibilities of employers and organisations. However, it’s also rather a blunt-edged tool that doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of our online lives. Legislation like this enforces a strict work-life boundary that may be a thing of the past.
Our research collaborators kept video diaries that captured the complex circumstances of today’s workers in a more revealing way than traditional surveys can do. These video diaries suggest we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century. We distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it.
To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.
So the French government’s move to formally recognise the distraction caused by unfettered technology is welcome, but limited. To improve upon it, we need to understand much more fully the complexities of contemporary digital online lives, what boundaries people now find important, and how the law can best support them.