UK labour union Prospect is fighting for ‘the right to disconnect’ which includes an end to out of hours emails.
With the pandemic, many have found it easier to create a work-home balance. But on the flip side, many have found that their work has migrated into the home, making it feel as if they are in the office 24x7.
A study last year of 3.1 million workers in North America, Europe and the Middle East found “significant and durable increases” in both the average number of emails sent internally, and the number of recipients. By measuring the time between the first and last emails sent (or meetings attended) in a 24-hour period, the researchers concluded that, since the pandemic, the average workday had extended by 48.5 minutes.
Prospect wants “the right to disconnect” to be recognised in an employment law reform slated for later this year, which is designed to prevent bosses from routinely contacting employees outside work hours or if they are on leave. Labour has also lent its support as part of a package of measures to protect flexible working.
Under Prospect’s proposal, companies with 50 or more employees would be required to negotiate with staff and unions annually on a plan for managing after-hours contact, though implementation would be left up to each employer.
The pandemic has only accelerated this interest in a right to disconnect. In February, the European Parliament called for it to be recognised as fundamental across the EU, pointing to the toll of “an always-on culture” on work-life balance. Slovakia introduced a law this year.
In April, Ireland introduced a “code of practice” requiring not only proactive engagement on the issue but reviews, training and equity checks. In Canada, the government is exploring a similar policy; Dutch politicians are waiting to debate the subject.
For businesses, proposals like this highlight the challenges of flexible working. And the need potentially to bring in policy that reflects the fact technologies like email and other remote working tools can interfere with employee work-life balance.
Business policy and technology as we move into an era of hybrid working must be built to simultaneously serve the needs of the organisation and its clients and staff.
This is a sizeable challenge, considering the needs of these groups do not always neatly slot together. Companies in the service industry with fewer staff, for example may need to do out of hours work to keep their clients happy, a process which is difficult to organise and cuts into employees' work-life balance.
These challenges will be navigated best by businesses that ensure their policies and technologies are holistically aligned, set up in such a way that they complement the ambitions of the company without undermining the needs of clients and employees.