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Do employees need a legal right to disconnect?

The increase in work creep among remote workers has triggered calls for legislation to help ringfence non-working time. We’d argue it’s better to change workplace cultures instead.

By Claire Campbell, Programme Director, Timewise

right to disconnect

The impact of the pandemic on the barriers to flexible and remote working has been a largely positive one, with leaders and managers seeing for themselves that employees can work effectively and productively when not tied to the office. However, there’s another barrier that has also come crashing down, and this time it’s a problem: the barrier between work and home.

Throughout 2020 and into this year, there have been a range of reports suggesting that employees are suffering from work creep – in which their working hours spill over into the evenings and weekends. Indeed, in an April 2021 poll by Opinium, 32% of remote workers said they find it hard to switch off from work, and 30% reported working more unpaid hours than before the pandemic.

The Irish government has responded by writing the right to disconnect into an official code of practice, and the union Prospect is calling for it to be written into UK law, describing the blurred boundary between home and work as ”the dark side of remote working”. So, are they right? Do we need legislation to protect employees from work creep – or are there other, better ways of tackling it?

Understanding what’s behind the extra hours

Here at Timewise, we believe it’s critical to get this right; if the hybrid model is to be a long-term success, we do need to encourage and empower people to manage their working-from-home time.

However, we’re also of the view that broad brush, right to disconnect legislation isn’t the right way to go. After all, the point about flexible working is that people can flex their hours to suit their needs. Choice is important; if some people prefer to work in the evenings, perhaps as a trade-off for a later start or an afternoon walk, they shouldn’t be prevented from doing so.

Instead, we believe the onus should be on leaders and managers to make sure they are aware of people working consistently outside their normal hours, and then seek to understand whether it is out of choice or necessity.

During lockdown, the fact that children were not at school played a big part, as parents restructured their working hours to support home schooling. But in more normal circumstances, there are three broad reasons why employees might be working long hours:

1. Workload issues

Given that 1 in 3 employees say they have too much work, it may be that the individual is struggling to deal with an excessive workload or unrealistic time pressure. They may need extra support to make their workload more manageable, or help them prioritise.

This may involve taking a whole team perspective, to see whether the work could be shared out more fairly. But certainly, helping someone feel supported through a particularly pressured time will have a positive effect on their motivation, commitment and mental wellbeing

2. Performance issues

If the workload is not excessive, but there is still evidence of regular long hours, it may be that there is an underlying performance issue. Perhaps the employee doesn’t have the skills and support they need to deliver. Or they may be struggling with a personal or health issue which is affecting their ability to complete the required tasks.

It’s important to address these issues rather than let the situation fester, and risk ending up in a downward spiral with long hours continuing to negatively affect performance.

3. Culture issues

This is a tougher nut to crack – but it is one that needs cracking, not just to deal with work creep, but also to support successful hybrid working, employee engagement and wellbeing. Attitudes to work-life balance have really shifted as a result of the pandemic, and forward-looking leaders are making sure they have a culture to match.

The fact is, workplaces, or teams, which have an ‘always on’ culture, in which employees are expected to respond to emails and calls at any time of the day, and to deliver to unmanageable timescales, are not healthy places to be. They won’t get the best out of their people, and nor will they be viewed by brilliant candidates as a viable next step.

Leaders whose organisations veer towards this kind of culture need to act swiftly to turn things around. They need to clarify what’s expected of their staff, and set protocols around how and when people contact each other (Zoom-free Friday afternoons and avoiding sending out-of-hours emails are ways to tackle this that are being widely discussed).

They also need to make sure that line managers are placing realistic expectations on their direct reports, and have the skills to look after any who might be struggling in the ways set out above. And, perhaps most important of all, they need to lead by example, switching off themselves and being seen to do so, instead of firing out emails at all hours and making others feel pressured to do the same.

How to take action

So if you spot what looks like work creep in your organisation, the steps are clear: call it out, work out why it’s happening and take steps to address it. Don’t just accept it; the chances are it’s a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t go away on its own.

And if you feel you need additional support with embracing flexible working to support a good work-life balance, we’re here to help; do get in touch.

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