IMAGE: Dean Drobot — 123RF

What is your company’s take on the distributed workforce?

Along with the new year, a new law has come into effect in France giving employees of companies with more than fifty workers the right to not have to check their emails or other professional communications out of office hours.

The law is intended to force companies to negotiate with their workers their obligations in this regard, and to try to reach agreement on the advantages of remote work without intruding on workers’ personal lives.

Defining work environments is fast becoming one of the main questions of the technological revolution we are living through. Many companies remain attached to presentialist cultures that often involve clocking in and out, others are begining to encourage workers to make flexible arrangements in which certain tasks can be carried out from home.

In most cases, progress in this ongoing battle for greater flexibility has come in the form of small victories that are often the outcome of relationships of trust, laissez-faire models or progressive empowerment. Growing use of WhatsApp, for example, now means that many companies are suddenly having to deal with informal communication networks outside their control, and that can both improve productivity as well as create major headaches.

To some extent, the new law in France aims to create guidelines for the balance between employees’ personal and professional lives. Some companies have even gone so far as to simply prevent the use of corporate email betwee certain hours, a move that has simply prompted some workers to use other email accounts.

The correct approach to this issue must include, above all, a clear will to explore the contribution this type of technology can make to the workplace. Simply trying to prolong norms that were created and consolidated before these types of possibilities not existed is an absurd attitude that can only result in outdated cultures, which may make it difficult to retain or attract talent. Based on a clear vocation for progress the next step is to take into account how corporate culture works: more regulated or rigid environments may need clearer guidelines, while others more lax in their definition or that grant more freedom to their workers may find these guidelines redundant or unnecessary. In surveys prior to the promulgation of the new law in France, around 60% of workers were in favor of clarifying the rules.

The French law seems to seek a balance in this regard: it promotes collective bargaining in order to define working practices, but does not provide for sanctions for companies unable to reach agreements. The idea is to make it possible to use the new communication technologies at our disposal, but to try to equip them with the means to prevent clashes between employees and employers. For companies, the right balance could improve productivity, motivation, or being able to attract and retain talent.

Moving away from cultures based on presentialism and fixed working hours could help create healthier cities, reducing traffic, particularly during rush hour.

The new year and a new law certainly represents an opportunity to discuss this issue in companies yet to turn their attention to it.

(En español, aquí)