Sucked into the email spiral? C’est la vie!

Last month, a new, legally binding labor agreement that requires French employers to make sure staff "disconnect" outside of working hours was all some of us could talk about—whether out of disbelief or pure envy. Media outlets around the world ran wild with this news, declaring that the home of the 35-hour workweek limit had now banned checking work email after 6:00 p.m. Those of us who feel chained to our email inbox immediately fantasized about sipping Sancerre at an outdoor café at 6:01 p.m., effectively barred from all electronic communication with clients, colleagues, and employers.

Many of those media outlets have since issued amendments to their previous reports, having learned that the agreement, signed on April 1st by unions and employers in the high-tech and consulting field, covers only an estimated 250,000 autonomous employees whose contracts are based on days worked, not hours, and thus for whom the country’s famous 35-hour limit does not apply. The agreement does refer to an obligation to disconnect communications tools, but only after an employee has worked a 13-hour day—not at any particular time of day.

Nonetheless, a 6:00 p.m. ban on email communication is not implausible in a country like France, and perhaps that’s why we can’t stop talking about it. C'est l'exception qui confirme la règle—it’s the exception that proves the rule. Why does disconnecting—whether by mandate or by choice—seem so impossible for the rest of us?

According to MIT Sloan Professor JoAnne Yates, who has been studying how business people use email since it first emerged, it’s all about the “spiral of expectations” we create. While an outright ban on email communication may seem extreme to most, without some sort of established social norms, we can and will let the tools we adopt take over.*

“When people adopt a new technology, they tend to start out by enacting the same patterns of communication that they did with previous technologies, and then gradually, over time, they adapt those patterns. When the telephone was the primary means of communication, there was an understood norm never to call anyone after 9:00 p.m. That norm eventually broke down with email, and no new norms emerged to replace it. While communication technology is inherently social, there are no built-in social norms that dictate how to use it. New norms must be formed.”

Individuals and companies alike can stand to benefit from both self-discipline and shared, very explicit norms about when and how to use certain tools to communicate. Especially among dispersed teams of employees who may be working across different time zones and cultures, establishing agreements and expectations around communication is needed. For example, while in some cultures responding to an email on a Saturday might be no big deal, in others it’s a violation of religious observance. We need to have reasonable and fair expectations of our employees and colleagues with regards to their connectivity and response time.

The spiral of expectations that Yates refers to is well understood by those of us who have conflicting feelings about the immediacy of email communication. On the one hand, we all want to be responded to immediately. On the other, the quicker our own replies, the greater the expectations placed on our response time. One email responded to leads to another and then another, and before you know it, it’s dark outside and the patio café has long been closed for business.

In the era of immediacy and constant connectivity, setting reasonable expectations for yourself and those you communicate with is essential. Determining and agreeing upon office-wide norms for electronic communication may at first seem gratuitous (or maybe a little French), but it might be the only way we can have our Sancerre and sip it too.

*Yates’ recent research on this topic, “The Autonomy Paradox: The Implications of Mobile Email Devices for Knowledge Professionals,” written with colleagues Melissa Mazmanian and Wanda J. Orlikowski, was published in Organization Science 23:5. An earlier conference paper, “Crackberrys: Exploring the Social Implications of Ubiquitous Wireless Email Devices,” can be accessed for free here.

JoAnne Yates is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and a Professor of Managerial Communication and Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan. Her research examines communication and information as they shape and are shaped by technologies and policies over time, in both contemporary and historical organizations. She teaches in the new, upcoming Executive Education program, Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age, June 19–20.

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