Bosses at Lidl and Volkswagen are trialling a ban on all work emails at weekends and between 6pm and 7am. The idea is to give employees the “right to disconnect” from work. In France, this kind of digital lockdown has been put this in law. It sounds fair enough at first, but what about people who want flexibility in their work? A new study suggests it might do more harm than good, leading to “neuroticism” and causing employees even more stress.

I know, I know, you’re thinking “what does this clown know about work hours and proper jobs?”  Admittedly, I have never had a “proper” job. I have temped in a few offices, but the positions were always even more temporary than planned. After graduation I worked at a Prontaprint shop in Winchester (my university town). The job was “updating the client database” on a giant computer. This was the mid-Nineties, and I didn’t know what a database was or how to turn a computer on. I had no clue what I was doing and sat there tapping uselessly for several hours. On day three I chirped, ”I’m just popping to the loo” and I went out of the back door, down the alleyway and never went back.

I moved back to London and got another office job. After half an hour of trying to work out how to use a coffee machine to make the boss a drink, I was asked to fax a document. They might as well have asked me to make an origami gorilla. I stood by the fax machine for a while with the document in my hand. I pressed a few buttons, started crying, then left and got a job as a cleaner. I know where I am with a mop.

I found the office environment as intimidating as I do the gym. Everyone seemed to know what they are doing and how to work things, while I wandered around feeling baffled and fat. Also, there are people there who have the authority to tell you off. I am not good at being told off by people who are not my mother. I’d rather be booed off stage by drunk people who hate me (Belfast, 2001, if you’re asking) than have someone in a scratchy suit telling me my targets “are a little bit disappointing this week aren’t they?” (telephone sales, 1992, fluorescent light tubes).

So, although my work isn’t Monday to Friday, nine to five, people I depend on in my work do keep these hours. What I sell is not always tangible, but it’s a business nonetheless and I’m its chief executive officer and so have mountains of emails to deal with every day.

I have an agent, of course, who will bat away the ones she knows I don’t have to deal with. But there is still a regular “ping ping ping” on my phone, people electronically tapping me on the shoulder wanting a word.

Weekends are when I have the time and head space to answer these emails. During the week I write when the kids are at school, sort out dinner, then rush to a gig somewhere. Lazy weekend mornings are often my time to scroll through and reply to less urgent messages. I never, ever expect an email back at weekends, but I imagine that if people don’t want to be disturbed they will turn off notifications.

The “right to disconnect” is well meaning but frankly it’s not just work emails that glue us to our phones. So many of us constantly check and recheck social media. It’s all a part of a modern malaise. I suppose it would be a bit much if Lidl and Volkswagen confiscated employers phones on a Friday at clock out time. 

What if they and other businesses instead instigated a cultural shift so if we don’t respond to an email straight away, or choose to do it on a Sunday morning, we are not regarded as unprofessional. We need to stop treating electronic email as we did phone calls in the Eighties. Back then, no matter what you were doing – you could be fast asleep, in the bath, up a ladder – when the phone rang, answering it would be your absolute priority because it “might be important”. And if you missed a phone call, it wouldn’t be there half an hour later, or sit waiting until the next day. Emails are; they can wait for a time which suits.

So many of us need the flexibility to work after hours or at the weekend. This is not the Forties; emails are not telegrams telling us we are going to war.

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Recently, I got the most superb automatic reply from a hugely successful writer I was corresponding with. It told the sender to be patient as he’s off writing, offering a few emergency numbers. At the end was written: “Apologies, but this is the only way I’m actually going to be a writer and not an emailer who writes as a hobby.”

Perfect. If we could all could make automatic responses as honest as this, then people could pick and choose when to send their emails and know where they stand with whoever is their recipient.



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