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by Jeremy McCarthy

In France, a new law gives workers “the right to disconnect” and puts restrictions on
out-of-office emails. 

Retreat. Escape. Getaway. These are the words we use to describe our vacations. But it’s getting increasingly difficult to “get away” now that we are all carrying our offices around in our pockets. In the age of smartphone technology, there is no retreat. There is only surrender.

One of the most relaxing vacations I ever had was on a remote island in Fiji (Malolo, to be exact). My wife, who does all the vacation planning for the family, confirmed that we would have Wi-Fi at our resort (a requirement that I impose because I am typically expected to be connected to work). But we arrived to find that the claims of Internet access were greatly exaggerated. Apparently, the Malolo Internet “server” consisted of a single dial-up modem attached to a palm tree with duct tape. In Fiji, the bytes don’t flow as freely as the rum.

After a stressful first day of panicking about being disconnected, I decided to “accept the things I cannot change.” I put all my devices away and spent the rest of the week doing what we should be doing on vacation: surfing, lolling about in a hammock and laughing maniacally while imagining the rest of the world still chained to their devices. It may be that the best digital detox is the one that is forced on you.

I was discussing this with Tanya Goodin, the founder of Time to Log Off, a brand dedicated to “spearheading the movement to disconnect regularly from digital devices.” According to Goodin, the main selling point of her digital detox retreats is the “permission to disconnect.” People now need a valid reason to explain to their employer why they will be offline during their vacation: “Sorry, I’m at a digital detox retreat and am not allowed to bring my computer,” or, “Sorry, I was on a remote island and there was no signal.” Nowadays, this is the only way to disconnect guilt-free.

But these pockets of disconnection are getting harder and harder to find. My trip to Malolo was almost a decade ago. I’m guessing by now they’ve knocked down a few palm trees and put up a few cell towers. Five years ago, the Grand Canyon was marketing itself as a “no Wi-Fi” destination. Today, when I search “Grand Canyon Wi-Fi” on Google, I get two kinds of hits: Hotels boasting about their high-speed connections, or complaints from consumers that they still aren’t strong enough. “Get away from it all” used to be the marketing slogan for remote destinations, an enticing promise that most can no longer honestly make.

But the backlash is coming. France, for example, has just announced a new law giving workers “the right to disconnect” and putting restrictions on out-of-office emails. The law is in response to labor unions’ complaints about the increasing expectations of workers to be engaged with their jobs (through technology) outside of normal working hours. Some companies aren't waiting for government mandates to address the issue. ORFEA Acoustique, a French engineering firm, has reprogrammed its email system to shut down at night. Nothing in, nothing out. One of our spa partners, UK-based Aromatherapy Associates, is developing a new out-of-office policy. When someone goes on vacation, their inbox will be closed until they return. Not only can they disconnect guilt-free, but they don’t have to slog through hundreds of unanswered (and probably unimportant) emails upon their return.

I think these efforts to reexamine our connections to the workplace will become more and more prevalent. It is great that we now have the technology to work at any time and from anywhere, but that doesn’t always mean we should. Maybe we will return to a time when a “getaway” allows you to get away, a “retreat” allows you to retreat and “out-of-office” means you really are out of the office.

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