When is enough, enough?

Posted: 05.20.14

13 hours is enough for one workday

The French, bless them, have decreed that work ends when workers leave the office. In a deal negotiated between employer federations and unions, workers can feel free to ignore emails from their bosses that come in after hours, and employers are being asked to take steps to enforce the rules. For instance, workers may be given separate phones or computers for work, which can be switched off. The details are still getting worked out, but there is a great deal of sympathy for the deal throughout the EU.

I have absolutely no doubt there is great sympathy for the deal everywhere in the world—at least if you’re a worker.

Technology is no help

This issue has a great deal of coverage on the topic of virtualization. Now, obviously, virtualization does not automatically lead to working long overtime hours … no, wait, yes it does. The whole idea is that virtualization will allow people to get access to their work and applications no matter what time it is and where they are. So, being out of the office is no excuse. Being on vacation is no excuse. Increasingly, being on an airplane is no excuse.

Mobile devices have already made it impossible to tell the boss, “I haven’t seen your email yet,” and certain bosses make it impossible to say, “I saw your email last night; I’m getting to it now,” and that’s why we need the French. Actually, we’ve always needed the French because without them we would not have 8 weeks of vacation and 35-hour work weeks and, wait, we don’t? Really?

In fact, there are a lot of French workers who don’t enjoy those perks. The government of the beloved Nicolas Sarkozy moved to define the work day for autonomous workers as being no more than 13 hours. Autonomous workers are people who set their own hours and whose jobs require them to be available long hours due to international time zones and distributed work flows. So, at the most basic level, this new rule is really a way to ensure people are asked to work no more than 13 hours. That seems fair, don’t you think?

The point is, technology is evolving to break the conventional barriers that once limited how long a person could work. We don’t have to go to a set place. We can communicate with anyone at any time. And with new and better tools we can collaborate with people around the world. We are redefining work, but what we’re getting are digital sweatshops. (For another view, read Jon Peddie’s editorial in this issue, page 18). Clearly, this has been a hard week for us both.)

As sure as it becomes possible to work 24/7, some miserable human being is going to expect us to actually work as much of the 24/7 as we’re conscious. So now is a pretty good time to start redefining the work rules for all workers, to create a baseline of work practices that are not abusive.


The BBC reports that in 2011, Volkswagen told its employees to stop sending emails 30 minutes before quitting time and to not start sending emails until 30 minutes after work begins in the morning. The German labor ministry has adopted the rule as well.

The E.U. has a work document called the Working Time Directive, which was published in 1993. It calls for work weeks no longer than 48 hours including overtime, and it calls for at least 11 hours of rest between work periods. It’s far from indulgent.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound, I wonder if the U.S. even has such an organization) also encourages companies to move to shorter work weeks to enable more workers to be employed and to enable older workers to be able to work more years after traditional retirement age.

Overall, the trends in the E.U. are, just as we suspected, toward shorter work weeks and longer vacations. In fact, many Germans now work even fewer hours than the French. According to a story last year in Business Insider, Americans work harder than most workers in the West. However, Asian workers are still the hardest-working people in the world. Lucky them.

Citrix CEO Mark Templeton called virtualization the next industrial revolution. He’s right, and with the first industrial revolution came inhumane working conditions, long work days, little rest, and Charles Dickens novels. This time let’s try and keep pace with technology and at least experiment with enforcing a new set of work directives that will help people maintain control of their working lives.