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Should workers have a legal right to disconnect?


Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 10/2021 vom 22.09.2021

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Bildquelle: Business Spotlight, Ausgabe 10/2021

Dilemma: should there be a right to go offline?

YES

“If we don’t tackle the ‘always-on’ culture, we’ll create big problems”

Andrew Pakes

We’ve experienced the benefits of digital technology during the pandemic, keeping us safe and connected while many of us work from home. We’ve also suffered the frustration and exhaustion resulting from endless e-meetings, emails, messages and calls at all times of the day. Evidence shows that working from home means longer hours, with more intense, changing work patterns, and that’s having a negative impact on our well-being and mental health. If we don’t tackle the “always-on” culture, we’ll be creating big problems for the “new normal”.

The right to disconnect ...

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... recognizes that each company is different, with different expectations. It’s not about one-size-fitsall, or people refusing to work at certain times. But employers must be obligated to negotiate and set rules with their workforce about how flexible working and “digital disconnect” can work. Employers need to trust their workers and build on the cooperation we’ve seen over the past 18 months or so.

The lines between home life and work have increasingly blurred. Employees are frequently expected to work unpaid overtime. If your manager sends you an email in the evening, do you respond to it or not? You wouldn’t expect your boss to knock on your front door late on Friday night and say, “I’ve got some work for us to talk about”. Why should we expect it of employees digitally?

Research shows that UK homeworkers are less likely to be promoted or to get a bonus. We could be institutionalizing new forms of discrimination if people are told to use their discretion when answering work emails and calls outside normal working hours. There is real pressure to respond, but people should have the right to refuse.

Many countries have already brought in successful disconnect laws. Major companies such as Telefónica, Renault and Mercedes-Benz have implemented agreements. The right to disconnect means a greater partnership between employers and workers to find joint solutions that enable businesses to thrive — and workers to maintain their work-life balance.

NO

“We can’t just sit on our emails till Monday morning comes around”

Len Shackleton

Issues of connectivity and pressure on workers are best dealt with by individual organizations, not by new laws. We already have far too much regulation of the labour market. The danger of having a legal right to disconnect is that it could provoke employers to change the basis on which they offer flexible working. The new-found benefits of being able to fit work alongside home and family life may be lost if employees are unable to pick up messages, calls and emails as expected.

Many jobs require people to be available out of hours. Even with a right to disconnect, employers will still expect this work to be done, which will add pressure to the working day. If we think we can legislate to make firms behave better, we should be careful about what we wish for, because firms may not react as we would like.

Those in favour of the right to disconnect seem to imagine a very rigid way of working. But most jobs these days are not like that. We often need flexibility to do the job properly. We can’t just sit on our emails till Monday morning comes around. We have to respond. What if we’re dealing with people in different time zones, for example? Employers have a duty of care to protect workers from too much pressure. If they fail to do so, then health and safety laws and employment tribunals can be used. We have a huge variety of employment contracts in the UK, far more than in many European countries. So, a one-size-fits-all legal solution isn’t going to work. In many of the nations that have introduced right-to-disconnect legislation, employers are following the rules, but not the spirit of the law. Increased rights to flexible working and a right to disconnect inherently conflict with each other. This creates problems for employers and employees and their respective expectations. It potentially increases tensions at work.

We are in an extremely fluid situation at the moment. The government would be wise to wait until we are finally through the pandemic before making any such change to employment legislation.