Is there a right to disconnect? Should there be?

As the quantity and quality of workplace applications increases, so too does the correlation to the number of hours employees stay connected. Work communication and activity were at one time handled during regular working hours. What once constituted employee responsibility has now extended into the gray area of off-work hours and it is time for the enterprise to take notice of the changes that are underway. With increasing research on the implications of our 24/7 work ethic, there is now concern that this behavior is linked to health issues such as depression and anxiety and that means regulatory compliance will soon be imposed.

The right to disconnect is defined as the human right to not engage in work-related activities during nonwork hours. Some definitions specifically state that it is related to any electronic activities and other definitions are more along the line of the right to disconnect from electronic communication. Regardless of the semantics behind the verbiage, the intent is to remove the employee obligation to be connected to the workplace 24/7/365.

And so it begins…

RIGHT TO DISCONNECT
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While today there is no U.S. regulation that specifies a maximum length to the work week, this does not mean that the United States is immune to this latest technology concern. New York City, well known to have an employee base that works a greater number of hours than other major U.S. cities, has introduced legislation that will prohibit some employers from contacting their employees after hours. Oddly enough, government entities would be exempt from this legislation.

Canada does regulate a maximum length to the work week, but it hides under the definition of salaried employee and is difficult and expensive, if not impossible, to prove under the complaint-based administration process. The province of Quebec has now introduced Bill 1097. If passed, Quebec will lead the way in Canada in the enforcement of downtime.

It is the European Union that is leading the way in legally imposed legislation that removes employee obligation to stay connected during non-regular working hours. Since January 2017, employers in France with more than 50 employees are legally obligated to set hours when employees are not obligated to send or answer email communication.

Some major companies are leading the way

Perhaps the days of leveraging or even taking advantage of our dedicated employees is coming to an end. What is interesting is that there are those who are leading the way in efforts to address this concern prior to legally imposed compliance. Daimler and Volkswagen have led the way in their enterprise initiatives to address this concern. Daimler turns off employee access to email during holidays and Volkswagen has their servers configured so that emails are not sent outside of their regular working hours.

We are starting to see new applications

Individually, for those who want to take control on their own, there are applications starting to appear that will delay loading email so that you can specifically state when you want to receive communication. Boomerang for Gmail gives the user the ability to schedule when to send and receive email and Spark is a free application for iOS and MAC.

Is this just about more regulatory control?

right to disconnect
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Reaction to the introduction of the right to disconnect has been mixed with some embracing the possibility of getting some kind of work-life balance while others expressing that the government should keep its grip off of the private sector. Many express concerns that this is but another effort by government entities to regulate every aspect of employer obligation. Is this just another addition to the unending list of the many laws and regulations imposed upon employers? There really are no viable statistics that explicitly state the number of unpaid hours that employees work and there are probably very good reasons why that information is not documented. That said, estimates would indicate that the average employee works between seven and eight unpaid hours per week. The reality is this indirectly means untaxed income. There is motivation by government entities to capture this unrealized income in order to collect the taxes due. Now is the time to be proactive.

Is this legally enforceable?

The legal community views the right to disconnect as something that would be extremely difficult to enforce. This would mean an increased risk that once again employees would land at the mercy of a complaint-based regulation and subsequent labeling of trouble-makers and whistle-blowers. A key component of this legislation is to raise the employer level of awareness. It will no longer be acceptable for employers to turn a blind eye to the number of unpaid, off-work hours by employees. Again, this would run the risk of turning into a he said/she said type of scenario if called into question.

Great leaders embrace change

In the world of technology, we know that awareness, communication, and education are always important in order to achieve successful change. The right to disconnect is a technology concern and that means if we want to be leaders we need to address this with our employees. Many, myself included, prefer to remain connected and consider all elements of our life to comprise our career. It is the successful marriage of one’s personal and professional life that constitutes success. However, that fine position of balance will vary for each individual and corporate entity. Not to mention that it will change during each phase of our life and corporate level of maturity.

As we witness organizations such as Daimler and Volkswagen embracing this change and leading the way with forms of corporate enforcement, at the very least it is time for the rest of us to become aware of the time employees dedicate during off-work hours. Armed with this knowledge, we can start to work on our communication and education plan prior to regulatory enforcement.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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