Saturday 20 December 2014

Can we maintain our work/life balance in face of new technology?

Published 22/04/2014 | 02:30

In the past month, Amazon, Facebook, TripAdvisor and Netflix have plunged at least 13pc each
In the past month, Amazon, Facebook, TripAdvisor and Netflix have plunged at least 13pc each

In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that modern technology would give workers more leisure time. But technology has proven to be a mixed blessing. While it has allowed us to work from anywhere it has also caused us to be contactable at any time, day or night.

Not surprisingly, the French, always the first to take to the streets to protest, are not happy with the way technology is eating into their leisure time. Never ones to lie down and accept it, the French unions have been fighting back.

Now employers' federations and unions representing nearly one million French workers have signed a legally binding labour agreement stipulating that staff 'disconnect' when they go home. Once an employee has left the office they should ignore any work-related calls, emails or documents on their mobile devices. The deal specifically affects employees in the technology and consultancy sectors including Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC.

It is difficult to see how this cannot adversely affect business for these global-facing companies and make other destinations, like Ireland, even more attractive to foreign investment.

If your company is doing business with the US, is it really viable to ignore all calls after 5pm just when everyone in Silicon Valley is waking up? And what about Asia and Australia?

Michel De La Force, chairman of the General Confederation of Managers, said: "We can admit extra work in exceptional circumstances but we must always come back to what is normal, which is to unplug, to stop being permanently at work."

The reality is that most companies now deal with different time zones. They cannot run a viable business if none of their employees will take calls during business hours in those countries.

The French already enjoy a 35-hour working week, six weeks' paid leave and generous striking rights.

Strict French labour laws have already fined Apple for making staff in France work nights. But how can multinational companies work under these stringent rules?

While workers' rights need to be protected, it is also important for employees to understand that when you work for a company dealing with other time zones, you will be required to take some late night and early morning calls.

The beauty of being able to work remotely is that you can answer these calls in your pyjamas.

In today's Ireland with everyone rushing about terrified after five years of recession-based redundancies it's hard to imagine anyone going into their boss and demanding that they not be contacted after 5.01pm.

Work-life balance is important and the Irish are a nation that values time spent with family. While we are nowhere near France's 35-hour working week, we aren't doing too badly.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that less than 4pc of Irish workers put in more than 50 hours compared with 40pc in Turkey.

And we win back hours on commuting – nobody spends less time commuting than the Irish.

While the new French law may sound good in theory, will conscientious employees really be able to switch off completely when they leave the office? Could you leave at 5pm when you're in the middle of a big project and not be tempted to check your emails?

With people now using their phones for leisure – updating and checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts all the time – it's fair to assume that checking the odd work email at home isn't a huge ask.

But the problem is that one email can lead to 10, and suddenly the hour you were supposed to spend having dinner with your family has been lost.

So what is the solution? How can you balance being a diligent and successful employee with switching off and spending quality time with your family?

Let's watch the French and see if a complete technology blackout after 5pm works for them. Let's see if it brings back their 'joie de vivre'!

Irish Independent

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