Mixed reviews on new French email law: Will the ‘right to disconnect’​ work?

They’re the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see before you drift off…

Sadly, I’m not talking about the love of your life; I’m talking about your email inbox.

There is nothing romantic about our co-dependent relationship with work emails — 42% of Americans check their emails in the bathroom. However, workers in France now have the option to fight back.

I dreamed an email-less dream

Although not nearly as heart-wrenching or beautifully sung, the French started 2017 with a revolution that attempts to make offices and workers across the nation less ‘Miserable’.

A new French law dictates that companies with 50 or more employees must negotiate an agreement with workers regarding the ‘right to disconnect’ from work-based communication outside of office hours. Essentially, workers are protected against scrutiny for not checking their emails once they’ve clocked out.

The law hopes to reduce stress by bringing order to the work-life balance. So, will this actively help to combat burnout or is this as fickle as most self-improvement ‘new year, new me’ resolutions?

A wonderful idea…in principle

There has been a great deal of positivity surrounding the decision from around the world. Many commenters have shown their envy towards the French, questioning if this is a solution that their own bosses should implement.

The new law follows a growing trend seen across European companies over the past few years in aiming to limit email overload encroaching into personal lives. In 2011, the CEO of Atos targetted inbox zero by banning all internal emails outright in a bid to separate important messages from general chatter. Volkswagen has been blocking emails sent out of hours for some employees since 2012, AXA Insurance and the French Postal Service, La Poste, have both installed internal schemes to discourage out of office emails and Daimler even has a system that automatically deletes any messages sent to employees on scheduled holidays.

All of these measures aim to maintain the balance between working hard and playing hard, enabling employees to recharge without the fear of scrutiny; ignoring your emails is almost encouraged.

The new law does not restrict workers from checking emails; it acts to protect them from negative judgement if they chose to spend an evening with their children, catching up on box-sets or simply shutting off from work. Everyone is still entitled to work late into the night and many still will.

A reality check?

However, just as many have been critical of the new law and don’t see any longevity, or even practicality, in restricting email checks to the average 35-hour week window of France.

The biggest counter-argument seems to be that this entitlement is theoretical. Workers are still going to feel the pressures to check their inboxes in the evenings and mornings. Bosses are still going to be more impressed by those who respond at their own inconvenience. It’s pessimistic, but is it also realistic?

The desire to climb the ladder and impress at work may encourage more stressed employees to reject their own right to disconnect to get ahead.

The impracticalities of shutting off when clocking off have also cast doubt over whether this law will work. Naturally, many industries will not be able to simply turn off their phones and leave the office in the office, such as doctors and incident managers on call.

Business is more global than ever, yet how can organisations conduct global partnerships and work through frustrating time differences if we shut off as they wake up?

With offices becoming more mobile and many businesses embracing the deconstruction of the traditional 9–5, will measures to limit the ability to communicate out of traditional hours mean sacrificing the modern workplace? The ability to work from home, to take the virtual office on the go, to be flexible with contracted hours provides many of us the opportunity to structure our careers around our busy personal lives.

Is the “right to disconnect” the issue?

Any new system that tries to define our work culture is always going to be fairly divisive. However, this new law highlights a larger problem facing work emails: not about how often we check our emails, but rather how reliant we are on email as the primary method of communication for virtually every process in business.

Whether you read the email at 7 am or 7 pm, does email actually improve productivity and drive action? How did we get to the stage where we have to invoke laws protecting workers from checking mail whilst on holiday?

Email was introduced nearly 50 years ago as a way to send memos electronically — probably to reduce the number of sticky notes on our desks or something. In all that time, email hasn’t really advanced, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to adapt it for virtually every aspect of messaging within business.

Everything from office chatter, approval requests and even critical alerts is sent to the same inbox. Email is very good at telling us what we need to do, but does it actually allow us to get the job done? Or does it just keep adding distractions to our already overloaded to-do lists?

Perhaps we do need a new revolution, but not against email. Perhaps we need a revolution against overloaded email and start implementing alternative ways to spread the messages we send across specific platforms that are designed to get things done in a way that suits the 21st-century worker.

What’s the verdict?

Only time will tell and until enough time has passed to collect viable metrics, it’s unclear whether this new law will improve the work-life balance so many of us crave. The question of how we can limit the reliance on email inefficiency remains unsolved for now.

There are various solutions that bring messaging into the era of the modern workplace and perhaps this is where we need to turn our attention if we want to get closer to inbox zero.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever escape the tyranny to email in the workplace, but there are ways we can limit how much it takes over our work and social lives.

Inspired? Here’s one actionable messaging software that tackles email overload to check out:

Heed’s actionable messaging software enhances operational efficiency, removing the restriction of traditional email communication.

Deliver the right information to the right people with smart, interactive messages.

Find out more here.