Does France Set A Good Example For Global Corporate Cultures?

A 35-hour working week and 'the right to disconnect' - should others be jealous over the French approach to work?


When it comes to discussions on work-life balance, many tend to forget that the key word is balance. Every country has their own policies, but France took it to the next level. The country already practices a 35-hour working week, and from the beginning of 2017, legislators have introduced the so-called 'right to disconnect', which allows workers to ignore work-related emails outside their working hours. The practice is aimed at reducing the number of burnouts in the workplace.

The news has been making headlines globally and went viral on social media, with many people supporting the move and some suggesting the law should be introduced in other countries. However, it may be too early to get excited.

When France introduced their reduced working week, initially, one of the ideas was to tackle unemployment rates, with hopes that more people will seek employment if a job provides a certain degree of flexibility. Since there are too many factors that affect the job market, the rate continued to rise and fall over time, regardless of the new legislation. Additionally, some consider the 35-hour week as one of the factors contributing to the stagnating economy and rising unemployment rates. The latter has been balancing around the 10% mark since 2012, according to the statistics from Trading Economics.

If we look at the US model, the situation is different - employees are usually required to work 40 hours a week, with extended hours being subject to the overtime pay, which according to the US Department of Labor, has to be at least 1.5 times regular pay rates. Regarding productivity, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2015, for example, Americans worked 1,790 hours in total, compared to 1,482 busy hours in France. The main difference, however, is in mentality, where most of the time, Americans choose to earn more over working fewer hours.

Times have changed, and in many modern corporate environments, the connection between employees and their jobs has become inseparable. When 'the right to disconnect' became active in France, the legislator Benoit Hamon described the law as a solution to the problem of when 'employees leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached to a kind of electronic leash - like a dog.' However, it's unlikely that the 'forced disconnection' will ease the stress or increase productivity levels. According to HBR, the average frontline supervisor spends a full 8-hour working day every week managing e-communications, with similar patterns being present across other corporate levels. An obligation to disconnect may mean more time off work, but as these e-communications still have to be managed, this may also mean a higher workload during the day. So in the end, cause and effect of the new legislation may not resonate with employees.

It's undeniable that the trend towards global business digitization and the rise of e-communications require approaches that would make it easier for companies to adapt and retain efficiency, whilst in the transition period. Leaders globally must review the organizational approach on how evenly tasks and e-communications are being distributed, and target any potential imbalance promptly. Ultimately, the French legislation may treat the symptoms of the problem but is still likely to miss the core.

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