Some moves in France this week to legislate that employees turn off their smartphones and work email at 6pm. It’s a move intended to give protection from the creeping erosion of the divide between social and formal spaces: the urge to check those messages one last time before dinner, before bed. Whilst we may believe the freedom lies with the individual to maintain separation between work and social lives, the realities and pressures are very different: just last week i was out for dinner with two friends in Singapore, both of whom had to leave the meal to deal with urgent calls and messages.
The realities of life in a global business or an unfair intrusion into their social space?
Sure, we have an individual responsibility to maintain boundaries, but the pressures on us can be significant and come with some risk: late in the evening we may have had a drink, may be tired, maybe will be distracted by children or a good film. Are we really at the cutting edge of our best decision making? Should we be expected to be?
I often chart the evolving nature of work: how it’s no longer bound by the four walls of the office or indeed by anything as quaint as the notion of a structured career. Instead work is about creating meaning, about being effective, about building a portfolio of skills that we will deploy and develop across a lifetime that will see us working with multiple organisations in different ways. Sometimes we will be employed, sometimes associates, sometimes just as members of a community of interest.
So is it the role of the state to intervene? Maybe. We have explored before the role of the socially responsible business: the evolved social contract that sees both organisation and individual taking some responsibility. For organisations, this means accounting for the evolved nature of work, the more fluid relationship with technology, the need to take a longer developmental view than simply the next fire that’s broken out. For individuals it means curating strong communities and building social authority and leadership skills. But maybe there’s a role for the state as well: because within the notion of Social Capital, for both organisations and individuals, there’s a responsibility to ensure nobody is disenfranchised or dispossessed by these changes. And they can be, all too easily.
In a liberal economy, i believe that too much state intrusion can be a bad thing: but also we have responsibilities and maybe they need to be reinforced or captured in legislation?
Can we trust organisations and managers to refrain from pressuring people into unfair patterns of work? Of course not: but is the answer to legislate, or simply to educate. I know plenty of highly effective people who rigidly disengage at 5pm, never checking emails and apparently highly successful. Not me: i tend to exist in that grey space where, i suspect, most of us do. I check and respond to messages at weekends, but also use Facebook in the day. The boundaries are blurred.
France has always erred towards legislation: it’s culture laws to protect spoken language, it’s working hours directive to restrict the length of the working week. Some people claim it makes them less competitive, but maybe it makes them happier too. It’s not as simple a picture as we may first think.