Since the beginning of the year, France’s new “right to disconnect” law has been the subject of much discussion. Often seen as economically restrictive, the law has been fiercely debated and sometimes even used as an excuse by skittish companies to delay their “digital transformation.”
But what is it really? Will the “right to disconnect” slow digitalization in France? Or should it be seen instead as an opportunity to initiate social dialogue and promote a better work-life balance in the digital era?Defining the “right to disconnect”
Article 55 of France’s labor code, signed into law on August 8th, 2016, mandates that starting January 1st, 2017, social partners (organizations representing the interests of workers and employers) must address the “right to disconnect” during “annual negotiations on gender equality in the workplace and quality of life at work.”
If no agreement is reached regarding the regulation of the use of digital tools, the employer must draw up a charter, after seeking the opinion of the works council or, in its absence, of the staff representatives. This charter must set forth the terms and conditions by which employees can exercise their right to disconnect. It also should provide for the implementation of training and awareness programs on the reasonable use of digital tools for employees and management staff.
Reality: the right to disconnect as “soft law”
The legislation does not give any formal definition of what the “right to disconnect” entails, and is not legally binding. This deliberate but vague vision perfectly describes the nature of the law, which claims to respond pragmatically to the diversity and variety of French companies. And the law’s application also needs to be considered in such a pragmatic light.
"The law does not mandate the use of a specific tool that would restrict access to an email server or a company’s private network, but rather encourages the proper use of digital tools, whether they belong to the company or the employee", said Caroline André-Hesse, who specializes in labor law at the AyacheSalama law firm in Paris. According to a report on digital transformation and the quality of life at work, directed by Bruno Mettling and addressed to French Labor Minister at the time Myriam El Khomri, the legislation is meant to "promote smart management of information and communications technologies, while preserving competition among businesses and respecting the private lives of employees."
The rules of “proper use” will thus be defined largely through collective bargaining, employers working closely with those who will be affected by the changes, in order to meet the needs of employees. The way this plays out in practice will vary from field to field and company to company.
How digital tools can support the right to disconnect
Information and communications technology (ICT)—laptop computers, tablets, mobile phones and smartphones—is abundant in today’s workplaces and essential for smooth business operations. But the portable nature of these devices can also blur the lines between professional and private life.
While most people would surely prefer to keep their home and work lives separate, not all employees have the same bargaining power when it comes to drawing the line between where one “life” ends and the other begins. This can all depend on a combination of many influential factors, including socio-economic status, age, gender, working hours, family structure, customs, tools, etc. (cf. report directed by Bruno Mettling)
Of course, employers must respect their workers’ health and safety, especially by ensuring that they have enough time to rest. But physically unplugging at the end of the day is a personal responsibility, and one that falls on the shoulders of each individual employee.
Thus, we should consider the right to disconnect as a step toward a solution that incorporates both company regulation and individual education.
Interestingly enough, ICT is also the best means of promoting social dialogue within companies as well as training individuals on how to develop healthy habits and set boundaries between personal and professional life.
Technology in itself is neither good nor bad, it is simply a reflection of how we use it. If new mobile technology is used to improve working and living conditions, employees will be more productive and the entire economic sector will reap the benefits.