France: First company-level agreement on digital transformation signed at Orange

The new agreement signed by Orange and three trade unions contains measures designed to achieve a level-playing field for employees and to avoid ‘over-consumption’ of digital tools, a key element being respect for work–life balance with a guaranteed ‘right to switch off’.

On 27 September 2016, telecommunications group Orange signed an agreement on measures to accompany its digital transformation. This is the first agreement by one of the 40 companies registered at the Paris Stock Exchange entirely dedicated to digital transformation. The purpose of the agreement is to highlight the opportunities presented by digital transformation and also its risks. It applies to the company’s 96,000 French employees and also, indirectly, to every member of the group’s total 154,000 workforce, who stand to benefit from good company practices developed in France. The aim was to reach a ‘balanced position’ between two contrasting approaches: that of adopting the digital transformation ‘unconditionally’ and that of refusing to enter into the transformation at all.

The signatories stated that digitalisation ‘is going to shake up the way we work and our habits with regard to the organisation of work, working practices and equipment, and the workload, and it will have an impact on jobs’. Orange, as ‘an engaged and responsible operator’, sees this process a way of improving working conditions for employees. The agreement was signed by the group and by three trade unions – the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and Workers Force (FO) – altogether representing 58.5% of the votes cast in the last workplace elections.

Terms of the agreement

Social dialogue a key element

The signatories make it clear they know that the digital transformation is a process and therefore state that the agreement, in effect until 30 June 2019, must be ‘completed and amended as and when there are any new developments’. The transformation also becomes a subject of social dialogue. A spokesperson for CFDT said: ‘This is a fundamentally important provision, since at present, we can only measure the known impacts and the risks […] in a field which is evolving very rapidly’. Thus, once a year, the Orange group management will present its policy on digital matters to the central works council, the works council of the France group and the works councils of any subsidiaries which request them.

A new body, the National Council on Digital Transformations, will also be set up, to act as a forum for strategic social dialogue. It will consist of members of the management and three representatives for each union involved. This body will work on ‘potential medium-term and long-term aspects’, and offer its expertise to the bodies representing the staff. It will also monitor productivity gains generated by digitalisation; this was requested by CGT with the aim of channelling some of these gains into improving working conditions.

Towards a level playing field

The signatories undertake to ensure that ‘no-one is left behind’ by digitalisation. Indeed, the first risk identified by the agreement is ‘digital fracturing’. The 2016 agreement guarantees that a common ground of knowledge will be made available, plus the time necessary to acquire it, so that the employee can become a fully independent user of the digital tools. Orange is going to develop personalised learning, defined with the help of ‘digital self-diagnostics’, making it possible to draw up a ‘digital interest and maturity’ report. Each employee will thus be able to identify their level of autonomy and the various methods of development available, including training courses. These self-diagnostic tests will be carried out on a voluntary basis and staff representatives will be given the consolidated results. The agreement also invites the company to effect a transition towards collaborative management. One of the current key tasks, the agreement indicates, is to ‘establish trust, where there is still a very top-down management style at present’. The company plans to train 80% of its managers in collaborative methods of working between now and 2018.

Right to switch off and how to ensure this

The agreement stipulates that ‘respect for private life and the right to switch off are considered to be fundamental rights at Orange’. It is a matter of protecting employees from ‘intrusive practices’ (such as email, SMS, or instant messaging services) ‘at any time of the day or night, over the weekend, during days off or during training courses’ originating from managers, but also from their colleagues or themselves. In a previous agreement concluded on 5 March 2010, Orange’s social partners explained that employees had no obligation to reply to such messages and recommended that employees made use of the ‘send later’ function.

This recommendation is upheld in the new agreement; it stipulates automatic mechanisms, such as the stopping of servers, to protect employees’ private lives. To prevent employees being exposed to psycho-social risks or facing a paradoxical situation, Orange advises staff not to use their email service or other communication tools during rest periods, or on days off. It says its management has a duty to set an example in its use of digital tools and ‘must ensure that this right is respected’, while employees must realise that their own use of the digital tools may be inappropriate and they must show respect for their colleagues in their use of digital technologies. The handling of individual switching on and off of digital tools in the professional context ‘must be reflected collectively, by taking the activity and service needs into account’. To avoid bombarding staff with emails, managers will also organise periods when employees will be encouraged to talk to each other. Employees are also invited to set aside periods when they will not use the electronic messaging service during the working day, for example during meetings or to facilitate concentration.

Avoiding ‘over-consumption’

By way of preventive action, the agreement offers employees, on a voluntary basis, the opportunity to have a ‘quantitative personal report on their digital use’ sent to them each year. A collective report can also be given to a team to detect ‘daily over-consumption’ or abnormal use of digital tools in the evening or at weekends. All the staff responsible for health and safety in the workplace will be given training between now and 2018 so that they can detect the risks associated with an inappropriate use of these tools (such as trouble focusing or hyperconnectivity). Measures aimed at promoting the correct use of digital tools have been scheduled, such as an email-free day or pop-up windows that provide reminders about the basic rules, with questions such as: ‘You are about to send an email at 11pm, couldn’t you send it during normal working hours?’.

Commentary

The agreement demonstrates that Orange management has recognised the risk of staff being permanently connected, which leads to an increased workload and a reduction or breaking up of rest periods, something that can be harmful to health and safety in the workplace. This recognition was encouraged by the campaign in France for the right to switch off, initiated by the General Union of Engineers, Managers and Technicians-CGT (UGICT-CGT) in September 2014 within companies, which echoed the one introduced in Germany by the Metalworkers’ Union (IG Metall). This campaign, which prompted Orange to become the first major French group to develop a social dialogue on the subject of digitalisation, can be explained in part by the group’s history. In 2010, Orange, then known as France Télécom, had to deal with several suicides brought about by the disastrous handling of its restructuring. Issues associated with the pressure caused by the organisation of work, or by the workload, are undoubtedly more sensitive for Orange than for other groups.

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