The French are apparently going to ban people writing work emails after 6pm. Part of me thinks ‘great idea’. Everyone is overloaded and there is no escape from the dreaded email deluge. People are checking work emails last thing at night and first thing in the morning, during meals, just about any time anywhere and replying to emails only generates more. But then again being able to work any time anywhere is the beauty of technology. It frees you up to reorganise your working day, meaning – if you work from home – you can take time out to do the school run, saving on exorbitant childcare costs, and catch up with the school day while the kids still remember what happened before buckling down to do more work later. And in the school holidays, you can start at dawn, break during the afternoon and work late. Of course, a lot of people don’t work from home, even for part of the week, but more and more will do.
Moreover, if you ban work email after 6pm, you’d also have to padlock offices at 6pm. That would be a revolution in the UK. Because what happens now is that people leave at 5pm, often so they can see their kids, and then clock in later to catch up on emails because all their colleagues have stayed in the office late, even if they have not necessarily been any more productive than those who have left earlier.
The real problem is workload, not when and where you access work email.
Setting times for when and where you access email is like trying to stop the tide. In a global marketplace when you might need to do a late call to the US or Peru, it doesn’t make sense. In my work, a lot of the questions for experts on employment law – often urgent ones – come at night, particularly on Friday night when people have got to the end of the week.
It has to be recognised, however, that there is a threat with flexible working that people end up working all the time and burning out, which is, of course, no good for anyone. Overwork needs to be managed properly. Someone at BT told me a while back that one of the biggest problems they had with homeworking was overwork and that managers were trained to spot this. Overwork at home can occur because the line between home and work is so blurred and because people are so keen to show that the common myth about homeworking – that, pace Boris Johnson, it’s all about skiving – is unfounded and so fearful that something that makes their life manageable will be taken away from them if they don’t respond instantly to every email.
So I’m in two minds about the work email ban. For me, the real issue is managing workloads and expectations and not feeling that every email needs an instant reply and ensuring there are times when you can totally switch off.