Zut alors! The French cure for email addiction

EDITOR'S BLOG: Like our continental cousins Brits need to learn how to say 'non' to the smartphone.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 13 Jan 2017

One’s first thought on hearing about the new ‘Right To Disconnect’ law in France was the customary: ‘Here we go again - those work-shy, cheese-eating surrender monkeys with their 35 hour weeks, two and a half months annual leave and habits of trying to lynch the neo-liberal heads of HR when the hot water is only tepid in the factory bidet.’

The law which came into force on January 1 makes companies with more than 50 employees begin negotiations to define the rights of staff to ignore work-related messages on their smartphones once they have left the office.

In Germany they have already gone one step further to prevent burnout among employees by cutting email connections in the evening and even automatically destroying emails which are sent to staff when they are on holiday. And they wonder why their economies have struggled to find any growth in the last few years. It’s a wonder they ever get anything done…

The measure is born of the highly au courant desire to combat the ‘always-on’ work culture. Work for the French is, after all, something which should understand its place and be vigorously faced-down when it dares to encroach on the finer things in life.

However, on further investigation, as usual, despite appearing like the classic heavy-handed dirigisme, this French approach to doing things seems to have some civilized merit. Our relationship with email, in particular, has got completely out of control. Each and every day across the planet 120 billion emails are sent, a vast proportion of which serve no real productive purpose whatsoever. They are just far too easy to produce.

This ‘info obesity’ has become like digital quicksand. Never mind being overwhelmed in one’s leisure time by addictions to social media with Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest. They are making the transition into work. The advent of systems such as Slack and Facebook’s new Workplace which go for simultaneous, shared communication make work even more inescapable. You can’t even stick the missive in a to-do box and deal with it later.

I’m as wedded to my smartphone as the next person. It is never allowed further than 15 inches from my person and - to my shame - is the last thing I see at night and the first thing to which I turn in the morning. As thanks for my devotion during last year it gladly informed me around daybreak of Brexit, Trump’s advent and the fact that our lovely house in Italy (cost price 52,000 euros) had been quite badly damaged in an earthquake.

I kid myself that I’m on top of it. It’s a tool that I control rather than vice versa. And, anyway, if you are as impatient as I am, then you pride yourself on terse emails, speedily resolved meetings and avoiding conference calls. (It never ceases to amaze me, when I am involved, how some organisations spin out communications to ludicrous lengths allowing jobsworth windbags to justify their existences by droning on for minutes on end when we’ve all got the jist by second four of the soliloquy. So much could be done to make things more efficient but they never are.)

Especially in the modern workplace, where employees are often working remotely and thus not actually under the beady eye of the boss, far too many businesses mistakenly measure commitment by whether you are always switched on, available and... producing emails.

If you’ve turned off your iPhone by 11.30pm you’re a weak-kneed wimp. It’s the digital equivalent of the last guy in the office, jacket still on the back of the chair syndrome. The problem is that if an email gets sent - especially by your boss or someone even higher up the pecking order - it cannot be ignored. What could be more impressive than sending a well reasoned response just after midnight? Shows dedication.

The great promise of technology was that it would set us free and yet everywhere we are in byte-sized chains. A host of anti-digital overload books is now appearing. From TED darling Simon Sinek who shuns Twitter but loves to meet readers in bookshops, to Adam Alter on ‘Digital Addiction’. In the Spring we have the doyenne of networking and MT contributor Julia Hobsbawm’s hardback called "Fully Connected" which seeks to set new standards of 21st century social health. (Hobsbawm still practices a techno-shabbat from Friday evening.)

The other side to the ‘right to disconnect’ is, of course, the great merit of flexible working. There are many part-timers and working mothers, for example, who quite like to switch off from 5-8pm while they actually take some notice of their children before getting some stuff done once the kids have retired to bed. With so many businesses spread out across different locations, countries and time zones getting a synchronous conversation going isn’t easy.

Working when and where you want is also held very dear by many in the gig economy and those who ‘self-direct’ with confidence and ease. The French law is actually designed to allow companies and employees to try to work out what works best for them (we shouldn’t forget either that the French are already well ahead of the UK in the productivity stakes). One hopes they are sensible when drawing up their Gallic guidelines.

Less acceptable is the boss who, after watching Newsnight with a glass of something nice, then fires off a few testing emails to his juniors, expecting them to be heeded or responded to instantly. Even worse if he thinks he’s a bit hip and down with the youth and does so with SnapChat.

And, talking of Newsnight, here I am with Professor Hobsbawm talking about overload. It’s right at the end of the programme and, yes, I did send several emails in the cab on the way home just before midnight.

Image source: Japanexperterna.se