Europe grapples with the always-on future of work, here today


I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Europe — two summers at the University of Lisbon, innumerable business trips, including over four months in Switzerland and England in 2006, for example — but I still feel like it’s a faraway place when I read about its labor laws.

Don’t get me wrong: I wish the US had a calmer work culture, but at the same time my deeply ingrained workaholickishness leads me to wry surprise when I hear about the legalisms surrounding work in Europe.

The newest is a Guardian story that relates a new agreement between unions and the consulting and tech industries that requires one million workers to switch off their work phones from 6pm to 9am:

Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones — or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita. And companies must ensure that their employees come under no pressure to do so. Thus the spirit of the law — and of France — as well as the letter shall be observed.

Actually, la dolce vita is Italian — the French would be la douceur de vivre, I think — but that’s a quibble. With a 35 hour workweek, it does seem sweet to me.

Volkswagen has also mandated email-free evenings and weekend, shutting down the routing of email for off-duty employees. The German Labor Ministry followed along, as well. But the US email culture leads to an always-on sort of work life, as related in this BBC piece:

An advertising professional who moved from London to New York describes a different email culture.

“I remember on my second day seeing an email from a work colleague sent very late that evening. To my surprise someone replied to it, and then the interaction continued online. And lo and behold we ‘were working’. By contrast, in the UK, if I worked late I would often draft emails but save them in my inbox and send them first thing the next morning. That now seems ridiculous and archaic to me. Emails are constant here. It’s not that they expect you to answer out of office hours. More that everyone is ‘switched on’ all the time – that’s the culture and pace of New York. I never really heard the concept of work/life balance when I got to the US. There wasn’t much complaining as people’s expectations were different. It’s not just in the corporate world. When my family were moving here and trying to get an apartment I remember being surprised and delighted that our realtor was calling and emailing us late on a Saturday night.”

Freelancers and executives may be able to determine their own priorities, but there is a paternalistic aspect of European public policy that is generally absent in the US. There, the presumption is that more junior or ‘lower-level’ employees might need to be protected from work policies that would lead to longer than legal levels of work. For example, in the UK the great majority of workers cannot be made to work more than 48 hours per week, and if the expectations around a job mean that employees are basically required to read and write email in the evenings and weekends, then that limit can easily be surpassed.

But these laws would never fly in the US. In fact, if I raised it in a discussion people would actually laugh, I bet.

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