Could an attempt at gaining work-life balance be a step in the wrong direction?
France has a famously relaxed attitude toward working hours, with an average working week of 35 hours and frequent two-hour lunches. It’s a country that regularly attracts a great amount of envy from exhausted, overworked Brits. As 2016 drew to a close, France once again proved its appreciation for its employees when French workers won the legal right to avoid checking email out of ordinary working hours. This has become known as France’s “Right to Disconnect” law.
At first glance, this move is an admirable one and a choice that shows clear respect for employee work-life balance. Such a law would protect employees from overbearing bosses and overwhelming workloads, which nobody could argue is a bad move.
However, there is more to this story — and it could be argued that such a law flies in the face of modern performance management and generational preferences to flexible working hours.
What the Right to Disconnect law states
The law impacts companies of more than fifty people and makes it illegal for French employers to force their staff to respond to work-related correspondence outside of their contracted work hours. It is the responsibility of the employee’s company to ensure that they do not feel under pressure to access work emails or documents when at home or on holiday.
Bruno Mettling, Director General of Orange, first put the idea forward and rightly stated that those employees who get a sufficient break from their responsibilities return to work restored, and therefore perform far better. Given that 52% of French managers worked at home between 8pm and midnight, disconnecting from workplace responsibilities was clearly becoming an issue. The law sought to resolve this work-life issue and allow employees and managers to enjoy their downtime. In reality, the consequences are not so simple.
Work-life balance is fast becoming an outmoded concept
The problem with making laws respecting work-life balance is it’s becoming increasingly clear that work-life balance is a thing of the past. By its very nature, it necessitates a strict division between work life and home life. However, since the emergence of modern technology, constant communication is possible. We are able to take work home with us, but on the flip side of the coin, we don’t expect to have to sever all social ties as soon as we enter the office.
Our careers and our private lives are two critical and meaningful aspects of our identities. Rather than keeping the two parts distinct, it’s natural that the two will begin to blend into one another. This is a growing trend known as work-life integration and it is something that France’s new law doesn’t take into account.
Work-life integration is becoming the norm
Work-life integration has emerged not only from the prevalence of technology, but from our growing demand for flexible working. One study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that both male and female millennials were more likely to accept a job offer if the company offered flexible work schedules. Flexible working is also of value to working parents, who might need to leave the office at 2pm but might get back to work once the children are in bed. In this way, parents are integrating two demanding aspects of their lives to suit them.
Increasingly, studies are showing that employees are interested in checking in with work out of their contracted hours. One study showed that 77% of employees took business calls or wrote reports on weekends, or after their children’s bedtime. The same study found that 75% of time logs showed something personal during work hours, such as exercise or school visits. One third of Britons check their work email over the Christmas break, but another survey showed that employees spend an average of 1.5 hours per day on social media — which is not as worrying as it sounds, given that the use of social media at work can actually boost productivity, morale and engagement.
British employees work an average of 38 days above their contracted hours per year. However, it has also been shown that the average British worker spends a lot of their time on personal conversations, tea breaks or on other non-work related matters, equating to an average loss of 28 work days per year. In their lifetime, the average worker will be late for work 141 times, but they will also clock over 9,000 hours of unpaid overtime. These statistics demonstrate how life and work are blending together and that integration, rather than balance, is more suited to modern life.
How do we deal with work-life integration from a performance management perspective?
Employees should be relied upon to do their work and hit their targets. This necessitates certain changes to your performance management system, but it is certainly something that is worth adapting to.
Rather than keeping strict tabs on their working hours and what they are doing while at the office, it is far more useful to judge employee performance and progress based on impact and achievement of goals. Employees should carefully consider and write up their own SMART objectives. Once their manager has given these objectives the go-ahead, determining whether or not the employee is slacking off or performing to standard will be easy to track.
Companies who are incorporating work-life integration
Many large conglomerates have made alterations to their performance management processes to keep step with modern thinking and HR trends, such as work-life integration. For example, companies like Asana, Dell and Dropbox allow their employees the flexibility to set their own schedules, with Dropbox even offering unlimited paid time off. Netflix is another notable example; it’s been making use of unlimited vacation days for a number of years and the process appears to be working. Employees don’t have their hours tracked, which creates a culture of accountability. The company manages this by measuring what people get done; employees who fail to produce results don’t last long.
While it is clear that France’s law is well-intentioned, given the growing preference towards flexible working and work-life integration, the law may not only be redundant to modern working; it might fly in the face of progress and emerging working practices. As technology advances further and communication is further facilitated, 9-5 hours are likely to become a thing of the past, so rules governing contracted hours are not likely to be helpful in the long run.