Jan 03, 2012

What do you think about VW's decision to disable employees' Blackberry email after work hours?

I read that Volkswagen has decide to turn off after hours access to employees BlackBerry email accounts, starting 30 mins after their scheduled work hours end. I like the idea that a company is actually concerned enough about work/life balance, or perhaps I should say imbalance, to try to give people actual time away from work when they are physically away from work. Looking at the tea leaves, I don't see my company doing this anytime soon, but I wish they would do something similar. I get emails at all hours, and I'm pretty much expected to return them within a few minutes with little concern about where I am or what I'm doing. I do it because I have to, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't get old. Will other companies follow VW on this and try to return some balance to employees lives, or should I just get used to constant emails all evening and weekend for the rest of my life?  Maybe I should start brushing up on my German!  


I think what VW did was brilliant.  But, having lived in both the US and Germany, Americans may not realize that in Germany there is a much more equitable work/life balance than there is in The States.  Americans work hundreds of hours more each year than Germans, and take far fewer vacations.  To a European in America, the amount of time Americans spend at work is pretty shocking.  For me, I worked three years for a US business, and the only days I had off were a few sick days.  Frankly, I thought it was a miserable life and the money wasn't enough to compensate for it.  I studied Medieval History at university, and when I realized that I had less days off than the church holidays guaranteed to a medieval serf, it was time to move on.  


Germans are more likely to stay with a single company for a long time in contrast to the American tendency to change positions relatively often, so there is often more of a positive relationship between the company and employee in Germany.  There are also German concepts that to Americans are rather foreign, like Mitbestimmung, which recognizes that businesses and employees are codependent, and encourages efforts to make life better for the people that are the foundation of a profitable company.  Things are not all roses in Germany for workers, and I don't mean to make it sound that way, but most Americans have no idea how much more they work, how few holidays they have and how few benefits they receive in comparison to most Europeans.  Every German also has health coverage, but when there was an attempt to introduce a very limited national programme in the States, there was a huge backlash as if the foundations of democracy were be destroyed.  


My point is that American have very different relationships with work than Germans.  I think that VW's decision to draw a line between work and outside life is a good one.  But I've been following American employment and productivity numbers for years, and productivity has increased with essentially flat employment growth, or at least effectively so when you take into account natural workforce growth.  Investors love this, but what it means is that over the past years, American companies have been pushing employees to do more work, while maintaining the same or even decreased level of pay.  Outside of a few enlightened US companies, I do not think there is any chance that you will be seeing anything like what VW is doing.  And that is too bad, really.

I think it's a great idea for most people. It will drive the type A workaholics up the wall though! Heh, heh. I bet some of them set up gmail accounts and try to work through those instead.

But, on the whole, having a work/life balance is important. And you have to wonder how many people really NEED to be checking email after the work day is done. Too many people get sucked into the corporate rat race and then can't disconnect afterward.

So hats off to VW for this. They are helping to make their employees lives better, and that's a great thing.
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