As work laptops and phones increasingly make their way into employees’ personal living spaces, some clearer boundaries have been established, at least for Irish employees, in the form of a new official “right to disconnect” from emails and calls outside of normal working hours.
The Irish Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar has unveiled a new code of practice to act as future guidance for the workplace, and which gives employees the right to fully switch off from their professional duties at the stroke of 5.30pm – or rather, whenever they have agreed with their employer that the workday should be over.
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Once they have called it a day, employees should be able to disengage from their job and refrain from starting or responding to any form of work-related communications, according to the new rules.
The code of practice was developed over the past few months following a request from Varadkar to better support and facilitate remote working, but the guidance applies to every type of job.
“The code of practice comes into effect immediately and applies to all types of employment, whether you are working remotely or not,” said Varadkar. “It will help employees, no matter what their job is, to strike a better work-life balance and switch off from work outside of their normal working hours.”
As part of the right to disconnect, the code enshrines three key clauses: employees should not have to engage in professional duties outside their normal working hours, nor should they be penalized for refusing to attend work matters outside of the workday; and equally, workers should respect others’ right to disconnect, by refraining from emailing or calling colleagues outside of agreed working times.
Employees in Ireland are already protected by a number of labor laws. For example, they are not allowed to work more than 48 hours per week on average, except in very limited circumstances.
The right to disconnect established in the new code, however, does not constitute a legal obligation: although the code’s recommendations will be admitted as evidence in a court proceeding, failure to abide by the rules will not constitute an offence. Rather, the code of practice should be seen as a guide for both employers and employees, to come up together with appropriate working arrangements.
This does not mean that all employees should start inflexibly working a nine-to-five schedule. The code of practice encourages employers to develop a “Right to Disconnect Policy” that informs workers of the normal working hours that will be reasonably expected from them, but also makes room for the occasional emergency that requires contacting staff outside of their workday, for example to fill in at short notice for a sick colleague.
Any new policy should also acknowledge that some roles come with unconventional hours, such as those working across different time zones or requiring international travel. Similarly, some employees might request to work in a more flexible manner due to their own specific work-life balance needs, which should also be accounted for when determining how to maintain clear boundaries between work and leisure.
What is key is to ensure that once the boundaries have been clearly set and agreed by both the employer and the employee, there is as little trespassing over staff’s personal lives as possible. This must be reflected in company communications, according to the code of practice: for example, emails and messages sent outside of normal working hours should tone down any unnecessary sense of urgency, and when not urgent, should state that an immediate response is not expected.
The new guidance will come at an opportune time for many workers. It’s not only that the proliferation of easily accessible digital communication platforms has made it easier than ever to casually check emails or messages at all times of the day; but the sudden switch to remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic this year has further contributed to blurring the line between office time and leisure hours.
A recent report carried out by the UK’s national trade federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently found that new technologies were increasingly encroaching on workers’ private sphere above the proper limits of professional time, contributing to an “always-on” culture in which employees are never completely free from work.
Over the past year, found the TUC in a survey, 44% of employees felt they had never fully switched off from work, and almost two-thirds of respondents said that they regularly checked their emails outside of working hours.
“Workers and their trade unions have long fought against excessive working hours, but millions of people are still trapped at the extreme end of overwork,” Tim Sharp, the TUC’s employments rights lead, tells ZDNet. “Technology has put further pressure for workers to put in long hours, by blurring the line between work and private life and leading some bosses to believe that they can call on staff at any time of the day – or night.”
According to Sharp, it is urgent that employment law starts catching up with the rapid changes caused by technology in the workplace. As part of recommendations presented in the report, in fact, the TUC has called for a legal right to “switch off” from work, so that employees can create a communication-free time in their life.
Sharp pointed to countries like France, for example, where the right to disconnect has been enshrined in law since 2017, allowing employees to avoid work emails outside of their working hours. “The new guidance in Ireland is another step forward,” says Sharp. “It is time that workers in the UK were protected, too, with a statutory right to disconnect from work.”
Alongside the new code of practice on the right to disconnect, Varadkar has opened a public consultation on the right to request remote working, inviting the public to express their views on how this right can be enshrined in law. Although employees in Ireland can currently ask their employers to work from home, the new law will set out clearly how these requests should be facilitated.