Employees could ignore emails and messages from their bosses at night and on the weekend under a policy proposed by Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party. Unlike France, Spain and Ireland, where there are formal limits to electronic contact out of hours, there is no right to switch off in the UK. Instead, protection for workers comes through “limits to working time, entitlement to regular breaks, the right to respect for private and family life and an employer’s duty of care to look after workers’ health and safety”, says Kloe Halls, an associate at law firm Linklaters’ employment practice.
Supporters of rules enabling workers to disconnect say the pressure to remain in contact with employers has intensified since the pandemic increased homeworking. Managers and professional occupations are “most frequently contacted out of hours” – a trade-off for the status and pay that go with their roles, says Jon Boys, labour economist at the CIPD organisation for HR professionals.
There is little detail on Labour’s proposals yet. Will Stronge, director of research and policy at Autonomy, a think-tank, says penalising employers for breaching the right to disconnect would send a “powerful signal”, and could help curb “unpaid or uncontracted work”. However Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of Prospect, the science and engineering union that secured an agreement with the Scottish civil service on the issue, worries about prescriptive rules. “We want to see employers discussing digital boundaries with employees, [thinking] about digital impacts of routinely expecting staff to work when they are not on duty, or regularly contacting them when they are not on shift.”
Some fear laws on out-of-hours communication could be counterproductive, reversing the gains in flexible work. Matthew Goddard, managing director at Organix, the children’s food company, says it should be up to companies to set their own policies. “Globalisation means that for many of us, the 9-5 rhythm is just no longer effective or possible.”
Where companies have set their own policy it hasn’t necessarily gone down well. Employees at German carmaker VW feel its work phone policy, which through a “server lock” switches off employee access to emails on work phones when outside normal hours, has made flexible working much harder. Introduced in 2011, the block applies between 6.15pm and 7.00am.
In practice, rules may prove flexible – in France, for example, small businesses are exempt and, broadly, the law serves to highlight the issue rather than penalise employers.
Colin Hunt, CEO, AIB
In 2020, Ireland’s second-biggest bank, AIB, was the country’s first company to introduce the right to disconnect. But Hunt says his own attempts to switch off remain a work-in-progress.
He admits he “does go out of my way to try”, and blocks time out for important school events for his three children, aged between 10 and 14. “They’re treated as very important meetings,” he says.
Hunt schedules holidays during usually quieter times of the year and tries to switch off completely – bar “occasions” when he has to jump on a call.
During the week, he typically works a 12-hour day that is “very full-on”. “But whenever I get home, I try to have left work behind. I do try to have a distinctive split.”
Hunt says contacting staff out of hours depended on their roles. “If I absolutely need to speak to a member of the executive committee outside of office hours, I will. On the rare occasion I do need to make contact, I will phone rather than email.”
He aims to keep his weekends work-free, though acknowledges: “If something has to be dealt with, my team has ways of ensuring I’m contactable.”
Michael Gaynor, CEO, Toyota Financial Services Ireland
Gaynor used to wake up in the middle of the night and write a note or send himself an email for fear of forgetting something important at work.
Now he has come to realise he “can’t solve a problem at 11pm or 4am – I’ve trained myself not to think about it until after I wake up”.
He says he has to encourage staff to go home from the office “all the time”. “I need to be aware of why someone is working late ... because it’s not something we want people to make a habit of.”
Gaynor has practised what he preaches since before Ireland introduced “right to disconnect” legislation in 2021, largely to have time with his children, aged nine and 12, and because he puts a high premium on mental health and wellbeing for himself and his staff. “Everyone has the right to completely disengage and log off,” he says.
Despite working for a Japanese company – Japan is famous for office workers putting in long hours – and managing an eight-hour time difference with colleagues there, Gaynor is committed to ensuring he and his staff take time for themselves.
Employees trying to send emails outside normal office hours receive a prompt suggesting they time them to land during the work day. “My operations director is on annual leave at the moment ... I’ve set the timer not to land [emails] in his inbox at 9am on Wednesday morning, when I know he’s back in the office, I’ve timed them to land over the day,” Gaynor says.
He may glance at emails in the evening. “If there’s something important, I’ll call. But [otherwise] I definitely don’t reply, not any more.”
Izzy Obeng, founder and CEO, Foundervine
Obeng expects the 25 colleagues at her small London-based consultancy to be “reasonably available” and says the company, which helps start-ups, delivers “a lot of programmes outside of traditional working hours”. But her focus is “about being flexible”. Parents can come in later and, in return, will respond to emails in the evening.
She suggests that rules are better suited to “traditional [corporate environments], where people clock in from 9 to 5″. Tech companies and start-ups have to be more nimble, she says. “You’re chasing opportunities. You often don’t have the resources a larger organisation does. People work in multiple roles. They might need to be more available.”
However, she encourages staff to make known their preferred approach to communication, perhaps phone calls or Slack messages, and share when they are out of contact. One colleague does the school run and logs on later. Another likes to take time out in the week and work at the weekend. Employees complete time sheets so managers can spot overwork. “We have a culture that people can take time off in lieu,” Obeng says.
When it comes to her personal tech use, she says: “You think about work-life balance differently as an entrepreneur. Work and life [are not] something separate.”
Danny Harmer, chief people officer, Aviva
Harmer worries that any right-to-disconnect legislation would be too blunt for businesses that work across time zones or respond to 24-hour customer demands. It must clarify the “problem we’re trying to solve”.
Aviva does not have a formal policy on out-of-hours communication and Harmer says staff are guided by company culture, which is set at the top. “It’s very rare that I see an email from the group CEO at the weekend. If she contacts us, it’s because we need to dial in or get stuck in.”
Harmer says employers need to discuss the expectation around flexible work. “It’s not healthy to be always on. There are layers of understanding. I’d hate someone to feel they couldn’t contact their boss for advice.”
If somebody on Harmer’s team sends an email late at night, she checks in to ask why. Emails that say there is no pressure to respond “still create an expectation”.
Microsoft Teams shows the hours people work. “You get data at a team level to see what proportion is spent on meetings, how much is out of core hours, and you can see if there’s an issue.”
Lisa Quest, head of UK and Ireland, Oliver Wyman
Quest says any changes should be done in consultation with a diverse set of businesses to ensure none are disproportionately affected. “What might work for one might not work for another”.
She has not “really noticed” the right-to-disconnect rules in Ireland, where she oversees consulting teams.
This year, the consultancy set out a Red Amber Green (RAG) framework. Every Friday, consultants grade the intensity of the past working week. Red means unsustainable and is flagged to Quest to reduce the workload.
She insists companies must design their own rules regarding working hours. “We implemented the RAG system in consultation with our staff to have something that works for everyone.” In her own life, she has a spot by the door where she and her husband put their phones after finishing work so they can spend time with their young children, though she will check her emails later. Clients have her personal number so they can call at the weekend if there is a crisis. “It’s never happened.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023