France’s 'Right to Disconnect' Law Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

In a country famous for languid vacations and generous retirement, the French government this week made its first attempt to rein in a familiar scourge of modern work life: the always-on email blitz. Even in Paris, where people pride themselves on letting loose after the workday, smartphones sit buzzing in cafés at night, as people juggle late-hour demands from the office.

Now, in theory, those phones should fall silent, since French workers now have a new "right to disconnect." The new law, which came into effect on January 1, allows employees in companies of more than 50 people to ignore emails after work hours, a move the government says will "ensure the respect of rest time and vacation, as well as personal and family life."

It's hard to argue with that. Yet to some, the new government-approved off-switch seemed to be a symptom of a deeper problem, in which French officials try to regulate virtually every aspect of work—often with mixed results.

"We're in a culture that's very bound by social regulations," says Thomas Chardin, director of a human-resources consultancy ParlonsRH.com in Paris, which works with major French companies to manage their online work habits. "We are still in the old model, where everything is very protected, regulated, formal, written down. People fear risking anything."

Reams of laws and regulations have proliferated over the years, governing watertight protections against being fired, as well as ensuring five-week annual vacation leave and 35-hour workweeks — benefits that U.S. can only dream of. The retirement age rose from 62 to 67 in 2008, only after months of violent street battles, with protesters—many in their twenties—saying they were determined to maintain their right to leisure.

But companies say the huge number of digital devices is subtly changing the work culture in France—as everywhere. Several managers say they detect a kind of work-creep among their staff, who arrive at work in the mornings stressed out and under-slept.

"Today the digital tools are blurring the boundary between personal and professional lives," Bruno Mettling, human resources director of the French telecom giant Orange, wrote in a report for the government before the new law came into effect. "With this accumulation of emails, and these employees who return exhausted from the weekend because they have not disconnected, it is not the best way to be effective in companies." He added that that employees felt increasingly at east checking their personal emails in the office; after all, there was no longer any clear beginning or end to their work days.

The right to disconnect is the government's main attempt to set new limits. Yet since there are no fines for companies who flout the new rules, the new law comes with little cost. And far more serious labor reforms have stalled, after months of violent street protests last year blocked the government's plans. The government finally rammed through less controversial changes—including the new right to disconnect—through an edict in parliament.

Even without government action, French companies have already begun grappling with how to rein in their employees' email obsession, some through top-down instructions that seem to defy the very democratic spirit of digital communications.

Managers at the insurance company Allianz France, with about 10,000 employees, are under orders not to send work emails after 6 p.m., or to organize staff meetings in the late afternoon.

The cut-off time for staff emails is 7 p.m. at KEDGE Business School, which has seven campuses in France. After that, an automatic email lets employees know the email is "out of schedule," and so can wait until the next workday begins. KEDGE Director Thomas Froehlicher told the French news site Rue89 last week that after the school regards the overuse of emails "like an addiction," and occasionally "an abuse," which could be reported to the human resources department.

"We have a very pyramidical, hierarchical management style in France," Chardin says. "The digital world has totally disrupted that, it is much more horizontal. But the right to disconnect does not address the more serious issue of management style." Truly changing that work style will likely require more street battles—and perhaps hundreds more pages of government rules.

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