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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Phoning it in

Could you bear to switch off that smartphone; or are you too scared of missing out on that important work email?

Say what you will about the French – admit it, the words ‘rude’ and ‘snobbish’ are hovering close to your lips – you have to admit that they have life sorted. They eat loads of butter, cream and cheese, wash it down with red wine, smoke a cigarette afterwards, and still remain thin and healthy (the rates of heart attacks here are among the lowest; what the rest of the world calls the French paradox). They work the least number of hours in the week (35, since you ask) and yet have a standard of living that rivals the best in the world. And it is a country in which even a Monsieur Flanby (French for ‘wobbly custard’) like Francois Hollande can have the most ravishing women fighting over him. What’s not to love, right?

And now, apparently, things are getting even better for les Francais. News reports last week had it that their labour unions had negotiated a new deal with the employers associations, according to which employees would no longer be expected to answer or even look at work emails outside of office house. So, while the rest of us wage slaves are anxiously peering at our smartphones just in case the boss has mailed us about (yet another) work emergency, the French are faffing off, sitting at a café, smoking a Gauloise, sipping an aperitif and wondered what to cook for supper.

Well, okay, I exaggerate. Like all things French, there is a bit of hyperbole and myth making going on here. (And yes, French women do get fat and their kids do throw food around.) It turns out that this ‘agreement’ only applies to people who don’t work the 35-hour week, and they are required to steer clear of work emails for 11 hours at least (the 6 pm deadline beaten to death by the media was a figment of the over-active imaginations of some reporters and columnists).

But all of this begs the question: if you were asked – indeed, required by law – to put away your smartphone for 11 hours and not even sneak a peak at it to check if something had gone catastrophically wrong at work, could you do that? Or would a part of you always be nervously wondering about what you were missing? What would be more stressful for you at the end of the day: staying connected with work or cutting yourself off completely for a period of time?

Speaking for myself, I have to admit (a bit shame-facedly) that the first thing I do every morning, and indeed, last thing at night, is check my emails. And the very thought of being parted from my smartphone, even for a couple of hours, makes me panic just a little.

And I suspect that it is much the same for most people in our hyper-connected generation. Staying in touch, staying connected, and remaining available for work throughout the day (and night) has become a part of life for us. And even if we resent the hold our workplaces have on us thanks to our smartphones, like Pavlov’s dogs, we have become attuned to clicking on to every email that pops into our inboxes, and typing out a reply right away. Anything less, and we feel that we are slacking off.

There are those who maintain that being hyper-connected actually allows them to take more time off than they could in the pre-email and pre-smartphone era. Now at least it is possible to leave office early enough to take your kids for a game in the park and deal with out-of-work-hour emergencies on the phone. It is easier to go off on holiday for a couple of weeks without worrying about what will happen in your absence, because you can always check in virtually every day. And working from home is now a genuine option in a way that it never was before.

But in a world where work is only an email away, is there any way to genuinely switch off and relax? Is there any way to enjoy some real downtime without worrying about what’s going on at the office? It is even possible to carve out some personal space when it is impossible to get away from the professional sphere?

Well, there is only one way to find out. Switch your smartphones off before you start dinner with the family. And switch them on only after breakfast the next day. If you still have a job by the end of a week, then you may be on to something!

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