I’ve been to France once, so let’s go ahead and admit this right upfront: I don’t know a lot about that country culturally. I also got a B-Minus in 11th grade French, so take that as you will. However, I do know a few things about productivity and email — and I’d auger this new French email law isn’t going to solve very many problems?
What French email law? Here’s a rundown from the BBC. Basic idea: companies with more than 50 employees are supposed to establish hours when employees should not send or answer emails. Because mobile email has basically destroyed work-life balance for many, people across the globe are looking to this law to see if anything positive will happen. This isn’t necessarily a new concept, by the way: back in 2012, companies were telling employees to ignore after-hours email. I can’t find the link right now, but I’m fairly sure Google’s Dublin office also had a policy like this for a while.
Is this French email law going to be world-changing? Probably not.
The inherent, baseline problem with email
I think one of the core problems with email is that most people just react to it, as opposed to understanding what it is and why it works the way it does. Let’s try to sketch that out for you quickly.
- Email is the centerpiece of the “distracted world” we live in these days
- While it might someday die out (like voice mail did), right now it’s very, very much used
- One of the reasons it persists is that people need things in writing, i.e. cover your ass moves
- At this point, it’s largely just a representation of your pre-existing hierarchy
- But because everyone is using it (internal and external to where you work), you need to use it too
- It’s primarily a massive “push/pull” tool that serves to distract you from real, on-task work you’re doing
- Because everyone reacts to it, it moves business away from thoughtful response and towards hair-on-fire urgency
In short: everyone uses it, so you have to as well. And now, this.
Harvard Business Review on the French email law
While the intent of France’s new law is laudable, rules like this confuse effect with cause, and as a result probably will not slow the tide of e-communication. At best, these measures will merely shift the timing of workplace communications from off-hours to the workday and push other “work” to weekends and after hours.
Here’s the basic problem with the French email law
Most of work is really about two things:
If you’re not responding to email after hours, but your colleagues — rivals? — are, you just lost on both of the above bullets. The executives assume you’re not competent (funny how “want to spend time with family” equals “not competent”). Because you’re not in the discussion, you’re not relevant. Many of us very closely connect our self-worth to our work, and if that means we need to answer emails at 11pm, so be it.
The pull quote above is what will happen. Now, in France, everyone will race to get their emails in during the working hours window. React, react, react, react, react. Real work — stuff that drives a business forward — will now happen in the 9pm window when people were answering email. We just flipped one problem for another problem.
Work-life balance in all this
It’s achievable, although often feels like a buzzword. You don’t necessarily achieve it through legislation, however. You achieve it by understanding how work (and projects) are tracked. That begins at a front-line managerial level, but of course … one of the issues with that level is they absolutely must be seen as busy to increase their relevance to the executives. Rather than prioritizing work-life balance, as a result, they prioritize hair-on-fire urgency garbage. That burns people out. If you want to explain turnover in most companies, the bouncing ball is this:
- Executives don’t give a crap about people and just chase fiscal metrics.
- Middle managers want to be executives, but don’t have access to the numbers.
- To try and get the attention of executives, middle managers constantly define themselves as busy, busy, busy bees.
- It’s mostly a series of invented deliverables that executives have never even heard of.
- Rank-and-files are like “Huh? What? Why are we doing that?”
- They eventually leave.
Email has a major role in all of this, because so much of the miscommunication and quest for psychological belonging underscoring this bullshit happens on email. The French email law won’t change anything. People need to understand, and respond to, email differently before anything different can happen with how we use it at work or after hours.
What else would you add about the French email law?