HR

Everyone needs time to switch off but banning out-of-hours email isnt the answer

Hannah Wilkinson | 13 May 2016 | 8 years ago

emails
Employees might still feel compelled to work even if they’re not sending emails
A labour agreement in France compelling staff to refrain from sending emails during evenings and weekends has attracted a lot of attention and divided opinion. But while the focus on work-life balance is laudable, it’s not something we should think about emulating.

Critics were quick to lump the agreement with the country’s 35-hour working week and government involvement in employment relations policies that are seen as pro-red tape and anti-business. Yet the guidelines were negotiated between employers and workers in high skill, high tech industries, suggesting that the policy isnt quite the socialist conspiracy it may have been painted as.

The reason many economists dislike legislation like the EU working time directive is because it could, in theory, compel an employer to recruit an extra person for an extra six hours? work, rather than simply asking an existing member of the team to do it. This, they argue, is expensive and time consuming, and could mean that the job doesnt get done at all.

But encouraging employees to disconnect communications tools? after working shifts of up to 13 hours as the French agreement stipulates has slightly different implications. If the admirable intention is to stop managers sending employees extra work to do late at night, then that’s all very well. But that will not necessarily be protecting workers from having their whole lives engulfed by work. And it goes against the grain of technology-driven social change, which means the boundaries between labour and leisure are constantly been broken down.

The first issue is that employees might still feel compelled to work even if they’re not sending emails. Despite the tech-heavy nature of 21st century employment, proofreading slides or checking calculations can still be done with an iPad on aeroplane mode. But it’s also true that a lot of staff will have no problem checking their emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and this in itself will not cause them to burnout.

The real problem is that while we are taking work into our personal lives, there hasn’t been the same acceptance of taking our personal lives into work. The standard hour lunch break enshrined in most contracts makes it impossible to fit in the sort of personal tasks most people would like to get done during the day unless offices are extremely centrally located, getting to the gym or bank and back can take up half the time.

At the same time, plenty of professions routinely pay employees to be on call? whether they’re GPs available for late night home visits or management consultants on the bench between projects. This flexibility is something that a lot of other companies especially small firms where responsibilities can be wide and varied can and do benefit from in a more informal way.

Given that clients, suppliers and freelancers are likely to be working round the clock, there’s a lot to be gained from allowing employees to communicate with them at a time that’s convenient. But it’s clear that no one can be expected to work all the time. The alternative is to give people more flexibility when it comes to the time they have available during the day, too, so they can have a nap or go for a swim to help them regain focus and come back to work able to be more productive.

The economists who talk about flexibility when it comes to employer-employee relationships all too often fail to see that it’s a two-way street but reading emails in bed if you can’t get back to sleep seems like a fair swap for an extra half an hour sitting in the sun at lunchtime, and means everyone is a winner. So if you’re considering implementing something similar in your workplace, bear in mind that the answer to your productivity woes could actually be giving workers more time to work from home on their mobiles, not less.

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HR

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