France to Business: Work Less, Live More

Many American executives will likely laugh at the country’s new labor provision discouraging after-work communication, but the idea behind it should lead them to rethink their own behaviors and expectations.
French labor law

Leave it to the French to set the standard for when it is acceptable to work.

Many of you probably laughed at that sentence, given the level of mockery us always-working Americans seem to throw toward the French work ethic. But a new law put into effect this week in the charming European country should seriously shift executive mindsets on our home turf.

Thanks to a new provision in French labor law, companies in the country with more than 50 employees are now obliged to set up hours when employees are not to send or respond to emails. Yes, French workers now have the “right to disconnect” from work, primarily during set evening hours, holidays and on weekends. It’s the law.

To be sure, as many media outlets have reported, the provision doesn’t flat out ban work-related emails. But it does require that firms negotiate a new protocol to ensure that work doesn’t veer into days off or after-work hours. Interpret that however you’d like, but some consultants quoted in the reports unpacking the law suggest this could go in several directions.

One recommendation, for example, is that employers and managers avoid using the “reply all” function on emails to groups, so only one person is asked to read and respond to a given correspondence. Others advise that companies set a time each evening after which workers are not expected to respond. This could be either the 12 hours between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. or 10 hours between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. — or other hours of an employer’s choosing.

This probably won’t jive with the culture of a company like Apple Inc., which prides itself on a philosophy where its employees are expected to pull all-nighters at the push of a button, not to mention its other demanding norms.

Still, at first blush, you have to admit the provision looks a bit ridiculous. First, the fact that a country has to legislate when it is acceptable for people to stop working is a sad commentary on society. But that doesn’t even begin to get to the fact that focusing on the act of checking and responding to email isn’t going to singlehandedly defy a global corporate culture that still places a premium on measuring performance by amount of time worked. To this end, the law appears somewhat shortsighted.

What the French labor law does do — and effectively, I’d argue — is contribute to what has become in recent years a robust conversation about the nature of work and what it means to be productive, and if working more hours, oftentimes consecutively, is the standard measure in this regard.

Most American business leaders will tell you that there’s simply no replacement for hard work, and in many ways they’re right. Often, outperforming the competition — individually or collectively — is a function of talent, skill and effort, which all require time to some extent. The more effort a company puts into its mission, the more likely it will succeed in reaching its goals.

The problem is that running a company that passionately promotes hard work, and running a company that creates a culture where its employees are expected to respond to work-related communication at all hours of every single day, is not the same thing. The solution is for CEOs — no matter their companies’ country of origin — to not only recognize the strategic benefits of allowing employees sufficient time away from work (even throughout the course of a normal workday), but to take the time to ensure that their managers aren’t creating this sort of suffocating internal culture within their organizations and teams. If the United States ever gets to the point where we have to create a similar law, shame on us.

What executives should learn above all else from France’s new law is that workers are growing tired of the endless expectation of being connected to work at all hours of the day. This includes those who are most in-demand by employers, and those who likely consider themselves hard-working.

There comes a point when even the most talented need to have the “right to disconnect.” Yes, regulation prohibiting around-the-clock work-related connectivity in the U.S. isn’t on the horizon. President-elect Donald Trump, known as a demanding businessman himself, would likely never allow it.

For now, the free-market forces of today’s talent economy will sure enough act as the check necessary to discourage this type of expectation. Top talent simply won’t put up with it. And as an executive, neither should you.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s Managing Editor.

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