French workers now have the right to opt out of emails after set working hours. But does restricting access to communication hamper rather than improve employee engagement?

New laws came into force in France on January 1, which gave employees the choice of whether to open and respond to emails outside their normal working hours.

The ‘right to disconnect’, part of a portfolio of new labour laws which have sparked protests across the country, aims, among other things, to prevent burnout.

But some experts believe imposing these restrictions can cause employees greater stress. So, which approach works best?

Email culture impacts engagement

Love it or hate it, email is a primary communication tool. And constantly checking inboxes, in and out of work, has become part of the fabric and culture of the vast majority of enterprises.

If you’re a comms professional, you probably have email as a core channel in your internal comms strategy. But you’ll also be aware that staff surveys frequently record ‘too many emails’ as a negative finding. Few have found a workable solution, despite research showing that information overload impacts on employee wellbeing and engagement.

Experts believe imposing these restrictions can cause employees greater stress

Your own organisaton may be one of the plentiful examples of companies large and small who have experimented with reducing or banning email over the last decade.

UK software giant Sage wholeheartedly embraced No Email Day, an initiative launched in 2011. While some recommend giving up email completely and using other social and collaborative digital tools, like Luis Suarez, former IBM social media evangelist, who has lived and worked without email for nine years.

Strict distinctions may cause stress

But David Burkus associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University argues to those that have influence over modifying or implementing email culture in the workplace, that it’s actually flexibility that’s the answer to employee engagement and productivity. Not imposing strict regulations on when we can or cannot access work technology.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review entitled Keeping Work and Life Separate Is More Trouble than It’s Worth, he writes: “New research suggests that maintaining strict distinctions between work roles and home roles might actually be what is causing our feelings of stress to set in. Instead of leaving work at the office and home at the door, integrating both might be a better strategy for enhancements in well-being and performance.”

Flexibility is the answer to employee engagement and productivity

The issue for employees is something we’ve all experienced ourselves. A thought pops into your mind relating to work while you’re at home watching TV or out with friends. Psychologists call this a ‘cognitive role transition’.

This fleeting thought or memory, when you are actively engaged in one role (being a mum, working out at the gym), but experience thoughts or feelings related to a different role (i.e. work), can become an issue. He says: “The more separate the roles in your life, the bigger that transition.”

Blur boundaries, integrate work and life

But this isn’t a one-way street. Thoughts of home can interrupt your concentration at work (remembering you’re late sending a birthday message). Most previous advice has been based on implanting strict boundaries around using technology. But the latest research from Ball State University and Saint Louis University has found the opposite might be true. Burkus states: “Blurring the boundaries and integrating work and life might better equip us to handle cognitive transitions while limiting the drain on our cognitive resources.”

Thoughts of home can interrupt your concentration at work

Researchers found that while employees with looser boundaries between home and work had more cognitive role transitions, they took less of a toll. But when people tried to keep work and home life separate, their cognitive role transitions took more effort and hurt their performance.

It suggests that flexible work arrangements such as flexi time or allowing employees to work from home not only increases engagement but productivity, too.

‘Deconstruct expectations of ideal employee’

Writing for the Institute of PR, Hua Jiang, an assistant professor in Department of Public Relations, SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, agrees with dropping the habit of out-of-hours email and says a balance between technology and face-to face comms is key to keeping up engagement.

“Maintaining both technology-enhanced and face-to-face practices to limit constant connectivity is the healthy model,” writes Jiang, while urging companies to: “Deconstruct the old structural expectations of an ideal employee.”

She sums up how organisations can deal with the impact of communication technologies, like email, on employee wellbeing. Here, internal communicators are well-placed to influence senior leaders to make positive changes to company culture:

  • Employee communication teams can help senior leaders recognise the connection between use of technologies, such as emails, and their impact on employee well-being.
  • To fix negative outcomes, such as burnout, and promote positive ones – greater employee engagement – help your organisation foster an environment that supports email accessibility and efficiency practices. Aim for a culture which doesn’t let email and other comms technologies interrupt employee work too much but, instead, creates predictable work schedules. Also, encourage decision-makers to work towards reducing information overload and mitigating work stress.
  • Communicators can also help guide and shape the creation of family supportive policies, strategies, and initiatives for both online and offline employees to balance their work and life outside of work.

Commenting on the new French legislation in The Telegraph, computing and work-life balance expert Anna Cox, from University College London, welcomes the opportunity for employer and employee to have a conversation about expectations around email.

Aim for a culture which doesn’t let email interrupt employee work too much

Different practices will engage employees in different ways and a blanket ban is unlikely to suit everyone. She says companies must take into account demands from employees for both protection and flexibility: “Some people want to work for two hours every evening, but want to be able to switch off between 3-5 pm when they pick their kids up and are cooking dinner.”

Comms teams will prove invaluable here, stepping up to advise leaders and instigate a useful dialogue. Perhaps an opportunity to be creative with the use of existing and new channels to communicate the dialogue – and not rely on email?