French workers win right to ignore work emails after hours

by Chris Matyszczyk

Commentary: January 1 sees the introduction of a law that lets French workers negotiate when they will and won't reply to work emails.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Just say "non."

That's how many French workers might channel Nancy Reagan, as they celebrate the introduction of a new law on January 1 that allows them to finally ignore their bosses.

Well, at least ignore their bosses' emails out of hours.

As Agence France-Presse reports, this so-called "right to disconnect" demands that all businesses with more than 50 employees negotiate new rules of online engagement with their workers.

It's common, and not just in France, for bosses to think that employees can be emailed at any time of day or night. After all, the ease and ubiquity of technology has made us always-on creatures.

The trouble is that such constant work pressure has made human moods tend toward the always-off. Psychologists have already raised the alarm that the constant work emailing can be, quite simply, toxic to emotional health.

Why should we be thinking about work when we could be fixing dinner and moving on to a little Netflix-and-chill? Does it make us more productive? Or does it simply make us more tired and angry?

As with so much in France, the intention here is noble, but the practical aspects invite closer scrutiny.

Might some unions simply sell their members' relaxation for a little more money? Might they reach an agreement that says: "All right, you can email us whenever you want, but give us a 10 percent raise?"

Moreover, is there actually any incentive for employers to negotiate? As the law currently stands, there's no penalty for companies that don't reach agreement with their employees.

Still, the French have been thinking about such laws for some time. Two years ago, employees in the digital and consultancy sectors were told that emails after 6 p.m. would only be allowed "under exceptional circumstances."

I can imagine that every day might have suddenly become exceptional.

Some European companies foresaw this trend many moons ago. In 2011, for example, Volkswagen agreed to deactivate its workers' BlackBerrys out of hours, so that bosses couldn't pester them.

But what about the US? Could we ever imagine sinking to this dark level of human kindness? Could we ever conceive that bosses would be told to just stop it with the emailing and Slacking when we're watching "Monday Night Football" or "Stranger Things"?

I fear this is hoping for too much. After all, we're heading into an era of deregulation, in which companies will be a little -- or a lot -- freer to do as they wish.

We're already in an era when one company was accused of firing an employee for deleting an iPhone app that tracked her 24 hours a day.

The mere thought that employers should now respect home lives might seem quaint. Or even foreign.