Kaushik, a young research associate with a leading consultancy firm, looks anxiously at the clock on the wall. Looking at the clock he wondered how rare has it indeed become to catch a sight of a wall clock these days. Given the rapid advancements in mobile technology, he's not surprised that people his age have almost given up the idea of watches as their cell phones serve the purpose, along with a lot more. He looked at the clock again as he thought of how far human technology had come, and how far it has yet to travel. Waiting for his flight he is excited. It’s his first holiday after joining a new firm and he looks forward to a well-deserved break. As he contemplates how simplified life is about to get with the coming advancements in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, he's reminded of the fact that he too travels with his own piece of futurist gadget. His mobile rings. An email, he realizes as he takes out his phone. As the notification loads in the slow internet speed of the airport, a faint thought passes through his mind. "It's office again", he thinks to himself as he starts contemplating the reason for his office to contact him.
In a recent move by the French Parliament, a new legislation in France has encouraged companies to allow their employees to not be contacted for work related affairs after working hours. This comes weeks after strong protests from various labor groups; the legislation is being hailed as the "right to disconnect". According to Article 25, the chapter titled “The Adaptation of Work Rights to the Digital Era,” proposes employers above 50 employees to design company policies in a way that allow employees to disconnect from their work. According to the New Yorker, the Article states that “The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers." Although the legislation is advisory in nature, it is expected that the companies would voluntarily adhere to the measure. In a response given to BBC, Benoit Hamon of the French National Assembly “All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant.” "Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash— like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.” he added
So what if tomorrow the Government of India puts out an advisory to companies in India to ensure no post office hours work is given to their employees. Will that be a viable option for India? Will it ease Kaushik's dilemma? A similar application of the legislation in the Indian context would be a bag of mixed responses. Putting things into context, Aarti Shyamsundar an Organizational Psychologist and a Consultant adds, “I think that even before we start talking about the ‘right to disconnect’ after hours, we need a serious conversation about work-life integration and work-life boundaries. France already has a famous 35-hour work week, which is why this law came into being because employees resented having to connect after those 35 hours. In India, we unfortunately don’t honor even the 40-hour work week and often times, people spend 8-10 hours a day at work, plus 1-2 hours on average, commuting.”
Owing to nature of the economy India currently finds itself in, most businesses would face strong cultural and economic barriers if such work-life balance initiatives were taken within the industry. Taking a closer look at these barriers would help understand the problem in greater detail.
Case of a developing economy
The biggest impediment to a similar application of the ‘right to disconnect’ in the Indian context is the fact that in our story of development there currently exists a fiercely competitive attitude, both in terms of access to factors of production and the top-line/bottom-line performance. Being a developing country, India currently depends on global forces for growth purposes. “India is still a developing economy. In such an economy many things depend on and are driven by the global market and competition levels. This makes it difficult to have a uniform policy for all employees across sectors. For example in any MNC with a large geographical spread, employees may end up working post hours where they have to coordinate work with colleagues outside the country. Hence many employers give their employees flexible working hours to manage their work- life.” said Sourya Dash, A winner of the People Matters ‘Are You in the List Awards’ for creating innovative HR practices.
And this rush for growth has boiled down to both an organizational and an individual level. It has affected the mindsets of both the current workforce and the managers which end up shaping the corporate culture which values employees staying in touch with their work for longer periods. Although there has been a growing awareness among employers to address certain such issues, barriers still exist.
Case of a fixed mindset
An important factor to consider, in the case of allowing employees to say no to work related activities, is the mindsets with which both the employers and employees approach work. With a need to drive productivity, the current multi-generational workforce faces strict daily deliverables. This compounded with the understanding that higher clocked hours means a better performance, ends up building a mindset which supports working post hours. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to higher productivity levels. As Sourya explains, “The workforce today is young, aspirational and on an average will spend more than two decades at workplace where the accountability is high and people are expected to maintain high performance every single day. This comes with its own set of expectations and stress levels. Then if you look at the way we are connected today thanks to mobile gadgets and instant messengers one ends up staying in regular touch with work related affairs even post working ours. Hence there is a need for balance. Switching off from work is essential to maintain productivity. Coaching Managers and culture change should be the approach to tackle high burn outs. Many people link productivity with just number of working hours, which is not always correct. That is where the role of HR and CEO’s come, to make the leaders understand so that a fine balance is maintained. Leaders have to walk to talk”
On the other end of the spectrum, the existence of unrealistic expectations of the employers ends up hampering a good work-life balance. The prevalent tendency of employers to expect their employees to be present at their beck and call adds to stress levels going on to impact burnout rates within the organization. And this becomes important for managers to take into account as companies face a strong competition with regards to the talent they can access. “Research shows that increasingly, top talent is voting with their feet and choosing to work for companies that honor work-life needs and take flexibility and inclusion seriously. If companies don’t offer these (not just on paper but in their culture), they will face a double whammy – they won’t be able to attract or retain top talent, and the talent that they do have will be stressed out and leave or disengage due to burnout” explains Aarti.
Case of an evolving culture
The corporate culture often ends up being a byproduct of the prevalent thought process within the company. A culture which promotes the tendency of employees to work beyond a specific work time limit often ends up hampering employee’s motivation and engagement levels. This inherently creates an expectation within companies for the employees to give more than what is officially required for them to offer. In most cases this becomes the only way for them to get noticed. The requirement is that of a work culture that promotes the efficiency of doing work. But this also requires a maturity of the workforce to understand the value of being productive in a timely manner.
But does India need such legislations that give a boost to companies creating holistic work-life balancing initiatives for their employees? According to HR professionals, only passing legislation might not be the best way to do it. As Amit Papneja Manager - Field Readiness, Asian Paints explains “India and France have completely different economic and social contexts. Because of the sheer competition, people here need to race against each other. We are more biased towards immediacy of action – we want to grow, and fast. Add to that the higher power distance – how many will say they are uncomfortable with their bosses calling them after working hours? From the point of view of work-life balance, the core thought behind this initiative is “I respect my time outside work”. This thought is still evolving in the Indian context. A statute or guideline will not be beneficial – what is more important right now is sensitization and a willingness to change.”
Legislation in isolation would not be effective if companies don’t feel the need to evolve their practices in the first place. “I don’t think this is an either-or question. Both of these need to happen simultaneously. A good example is what’s happening with parental leave – the law mandates 84 days’ maternity leave. But organizations that have realized how crucial this time is for new parents, often provide additional time off for mothers – and are increasingly providing ample time off for fathers as well. This organic move is yielding rich dividends in the form of committed, engaged and grateful employees at work. A similar thing will need to happen for us to see a real change in how we respect work-life integration needs.” said Aarti. It is here where the role of HR becomes prominent.
Company initiatives directed towards helping employees build a strong balance between the work they do and their lives outside work would decrease employee burnout and stress-related outcomes on physical and mental health. It would improve employee engagement and therefore, productivity and retention. This is evident with the host of companies introducing flexible work schedules with ‘work from home’ options to policies which allow employees to work from anywhere anyplace till the work is done in a timely manner. This shows the growing level of trust between the managers and the employees; between the company and its workforce. There have been positive signs showing a cultural shift within organizations on focusing more of the efficiency of work being done rather than the number of hours one clocks. This has been the result of HR actively evolving company policies to match the changing demands of the workforce with company expectations.
But a lot more still needs to be done. HR needs to build a case for a stronger shift in perceptions with both the employers and the employees. By using newer analytical frameworks to understand data, HR professionals can help remove the inherent biases of working extra vis-à-vis working efficiently. They also need to bring the leaders on board such work life management initiative and to use them to set the right example across their chain of command. Any such initiative will only be respected and accessed by its employees if they see their managers taking the first steps. Playing a balancing act, HR can help companies face competition with a motivated workforce while at the same time build a strong company culture that appreciates the employee’s freedom rarely resorting to the option disturbing employees after work hours. This process though takes as it requires a certain understanding and trust to be built between the manager and the employer.
As workplaces keep evolving, no culture is permanent. Expecting people to stay connected to their work 24 hours a day is one of the reasons why employees, in most cases, find it difficult to say ‘no’ to the after office hour work and eventually burn out under the pressure. By giving employees the ‘right to disconnect’ companies agree to respect the agency of an employee over their work schedules. Although such a possibility seems far-fetched from the Indian context, the signs of change are surely there. Maybe the next time Kaushik can ignore the email without worrying about the repercussions, trusting his boss would understand. Or he might not end up receiving emails in the first place.