The Right to Disconnect

May 14, 2021
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Right To Disconnect

It’s 6.30pm. You’re in a Zoom meeting at the kitchen table while your child pulls at your arm with an online schooling issue. Your partner is answering emails in the other room, and supper is Uber Eats, again. Is this one of the things the UN had in mind when it declared that the theme for International Day of Families (May 15 2021) is a focus on the impacts of new technologies on the well-being of families?

If you recognise the scenario above (or if employees are living that life), it’s worth thinking about a concept that’s gaining ground in Europe: the right to disconnect.

The right to disconnect is a proposed human right, giving people the right not to engage in work-related electronic communications in non-work hours. That could mean the right not to deal with work emails, and could include responding to calls, WhatsApp messages or chatting in Slack channels. It’s relatively easy to figure out how this might work when there is a clear distinction between the home and the office as two separate physical spaces – but Covid-19 induced work-from-home regimes have taken away that distinction, and made it harder for everyone to maintain work vs home boundaries, with the result that we have gone from working from home to sleeping at the office. In the grey areas workers now inhabit, why not just answer that email, or take that call?

More than a year into the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about remote working’s advantages (flexibility, no commuting) and disadvantages (isolation, mental health issues). Could the right to disconnect, or a version of it, be a way to mitigate the negative effects of remote working?

Where and how is the right to disconnect implemented?

The concept first emerged in France in 2001 and is now a law there. Employers have an obligation to stop encroaching on their employees’ personal and family lives with calls and emails. The law doesn’t go into specifics but “requires annual negotiations between employers and employees to determine the limits between the latter’s work and personal lives”.

France is the only country with an actual law, but the idea is under discussion in many European countries. As recently as January 2021, the European Parliament passed a legislative initiative which recommends a directive that allows those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours without facing any adverse consequences.

In an example of how the right to disconnect might work, it’s reported that Daimler in Germany has a programme that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation (thus taking the responsibility for implementation out of human hands and putting it in the software).

How this would go down in the United States is another matter entirely. After the 2014 death of an intern (who reportedly had worked for 72 hours without sleep before he died), the Bank of America implemented a policy that said analysts and associates were expected to take a minimum of four weekend days off per month (you read that right: they would have just four days off a month, and that’s the new relaxed policy). That’s an extreme example of the notoriously long days that US workers put in but putting away the smartphone in favour of dinner with the family might not be an option in New York any time soon.

Local culture and working habits, as well as legislative frameworks, dictate whether the right to disconnect would work in any given company. It might not be viable for all executive teams or employees, and there would be a good deal of human resource work involved in implementing such a policy. But the concept could be a good tool to have in any remote-working managerial toolkit.

Things to think about

  1. For managers or team leaders: are attempts to stay in touch with remote workers counter-productive? All those Zoom meetings could be digging deep into people’s emotional reserves.

  2. Do executives have an unconscious expectation that employees should be ‘always on’? Do staff feel empowered to manage the disappearance of boundaries between their professional and personal lives?

  3. If staff are burnt-out in their home “offices”, would negotiating a right to disconnect policy help? If a company’s pre-Covid culture was for everyone to work long hours, could the pandemic be an opportunity to change the culture?

  4. To what extent does the right to disconnect apply to the working lives of executives? Does it apply at all? If not, why not?

Things to do (even without a full-on right to disconnect policy):

  1. Encourage workers to use their accrued vacation time, or mandate that they do.

  2. Establish times when workers will not be required to respond to emails or messages. Incorporate that into company policy.

  3. Walk the walk. Management teams should demonstrate that they too take breaks, weekends and holidays. And that they don’t check their email at midnight, or send WhatsApp messages at 5am.