In these days of mobile technology, work doesn't necessarily stop when an employee leaves the office. France has decided it's time to act and introduced rules to protect people (in certain sectors) from work email outside of office hours, which is understood to mean 6pm to 9am. The deal means employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work email, and firms will not be able to pressure staff to check messages.
Some German firms have also announced that servers would stop sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees' shifts and only start again half an hour before the person returned to work.
Obviously these schemes would not work in every industry, or at least not with the same set 'office hours'. Many staff need to work in shifts in order to cover a longer working day. Medical staff and emergency services are paid to be on call even if they end up not being needed. "If you're not being paid you're not being valued," says Paul Sellers, policy advisor for the Trades Union Congress in the UK. "Why are we expecting people to work to 8.30pm or later?" Many working time regulations and policies were drawn up before mobile phones were so prevalent. "Digital working time" should be measured and the policies rewritten to bring them up-to-date.
In some workplaces it is expected that employees will respond to emails within a short timeframe. One advertising consultant in London, who is expected to check her emails in the evenings, says, "Many emails come through between 6pm and 10pm. Needless to say not all of them require an immediate response though if I'm to tell which do and don't, I do need to check them."
This situation could be engendering a culture of individuals who reply at midnight because nobody wants to be the person who didn't reply. If companies don't set boundaries as to how long an employee may take to respond to work-related requests outside of office hours then every conscientious employee will feel the need to work moderate to extreme levels of unpaid overtime in their effort to satisfy the organization and the boss. However, overworked workers become less productive. Productivity can also be impacted by issues outside of the office – one London worker says he thought he'd perfected the discreet glance at the phone during dinner. Now he's not so sure. "I suspect you're more distracted in company than you think you are. It can be very irritating to people around you."
On the other side of the debate, now that we can put anything we may need in the cloud. or can carry our access on a tablet or mobile device, employees have better options for flexi-time – keeping in touch on trains, emailing between time zones - or working from home (see our previous blog). This may be especially helpful for people with young families and provide them with more employment opportunities.
Email 'lock-outs' may not work for Australia but the important message is that all employees (including the boss) need good work-life balance. Managers should encourage this and educate their staff accordingly.