THE BLOG

The Unbearable Ennui Of Email

12/01/2017 15:39 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 15:39 GMT

The French are good at so many things. The nutty piquant of a melty raclette. Magnifique! Match that with a Bordeaux and crusty baguette. Oui oui! And I, like many, have been a fan of French kissing since my teen years. But if we are to love, we must love honestly, and some feel the French approach to employment law is a bit take and no give. Meaning, the French enjoy some pretty generous employment laws and call for frequent industrial action when they feel that generosity is at risk.

Don't get me wrong. As a US immigrant to (still... for now) Europe's fair shores by way of London, I am delighted to actually have a decent paid leave scheme. Moreover, I am delighted that I am in fact encouraged to use said leave scheme and not have my job threatened by doing so. But France's latest attempt to legislate work-life balance is, as they say in français, très merde.

In an effort to stop French knowledge workers being tethered "like a dog" to their email, a French employment law went into effect on 1 January that seeks to regulate the hours during which you may send and receive email. At first blush this may seem like a great idea (we have all experienced unbearable email ennui), but dig a little deeper and the law begins to smell like some pretty ripe Roquefort.

Work-life balance, or as I prefer to call it, balance, is all about choice. I loathe mornings. My team know to never expect to see me before 10am. My philosophy is that a sunrise is something you enjoy at the end of a raucous evening, and the dawn chorus of bird song is second only to nails on a chalkboard. Even if a Frenchman asked me in their most sultry accent, I still would not be inclined to generate any work product of value before noon. And wasn't it their own Gallic son, Descartes, who said that very thing? My best work occurs around 7pm and I am known to send email well into the wee hours. And that is not to discuss the multitude of time zones our team work in that may make one man's work day another man's unsociable hours. Without choice on how and when I work, I'd be about as productive as, well, a Frenchman.

I jest, of course, as the French are actually quite productive compared to their British cousins, churning out a third more per hour. Almost equal to that of the US. As with any statistics, these can be sliced to mean different things, but, by and large, the reputation of the French being lazy is just stereotyping. Like Brits enjoying warm beer or Americans liking bacon-flavoured everything. (On second thought...)

This is not to say that the relationship between email and the average knowledge worker doesn't need a bit of rapprochement. Workers in the UK are using almost the equivalent of their paid leave, 29 days, on sorting through their inboxes. In the Harvard Business Review article about this issue, a very sane suggestion was brought forward which I have recommended to our clients as well. Eliminate "reply to all". French tech giant Atos Origin in their zero-email initiative did this and also added a truly radical step by suggesting that people make phone calls with their smart phones rather than email their colleagues. Shocking but true, our mobile phones actually make calls and don't just take selfies. (With 25% of folks in the UK making less than a call a week from them, you would forget that was once their primary purpose.)

But these sorts of changes all come from culture and leadership and they take time (Atos began their email reduction journey in 2006.) Furthermore, for the most part, these sorts of changes can't be legislated to any great effect. Choice of how, when and where to work is the way to offer better balance and it's simply silly to think that a new employment law will be the solution to a deeply engrained workplace tool and behaviour. The important element here is that while I send my emails at all hours, I don't expect a reply. Why? Because I respect the myriad working rhythms of my team. Respect cannot be legislated. (If only it could.) As the country who coined the word entrepreneur, I would have hoped for more.

Regrettably, if their love of Jerry Lewis is any indication, the French, along with beautiful architecture and even more beautiful shoes, also like a good bit of silly, and so, I imagine this law is here to stay.