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Why we need to rethink the right to disconnect

From the moment they open their eyes, many employees will reach for their phones to check for any critical emails before jumping in the shower. The pressure to always be 'available' increases with the never-ending group chats, Zoom or Teams meetings, and the constant bombardment of notifications that follow workers across every device.

The rise of workplace surveillance software that captures screenshots and tracks every keystroke combined with Microsoft's creepy productivity score is making matters worse. As a result, many believe we are sitting on a health and safety timebomb and need to implement preventive measures to stop workers from burnout. But is it the responsibility of the employer to create a right to disconnect policy, or should individuals be responsible for setting boundaries for themselves?

The banning of out-of-hours emails

Something needs to change with increasing reports of disrupted sleep, repetitive strain injuries, inactivity, stress, and burnout. The knee-jerk reaction in the media was to ban out-of-hours emails from being sent in the workplace.

France, Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Ireland attempted to lead the way by introducing legislation that gives workers the legal right to disconnect.

Other nations also explore similar policies that would provide more clarity around the blurred lines between work and home.

These idealistic and well-meaning solutions could succeed in preventing colleagues and customers from filling our inboxes while we sleep. It might even improve our chances of reaching the mythical island of inbox zero. But it's sadly unrealistic in an always-online marketplace. Although we are surrounded by mobile devices and collaborative platforms in a world that never sleeps, we need to accept that we don't need to be online all the time and know when to go offline.

Employee burnout is something that every company needs to take seriously. By daring to explore work beyond digital presenteeism and refocus on achieving a set of shared goals, it could also give employees a chance to relax and recharge without the need to ban or overcomplicate things.

The flexible working dilemma

Many now have the freedom to be location agnostic and work from anywhere, on any device, and at a time that fits their lifestyle. After being preoccupied with back-to-back meetings and family commitments during the day, many are more productive in the evenings rather than the day. By contrast, their colleagues might be early risers who prefer to start their day at 05:30 am.

Flexible working means that our working hours won't be normal to everyone else. Maybe, we need to manage our expectations and embrace that it's not realistic to expect an instant reply to every message. The alternative of a business instructing staff to not work during certain hours will negatively impact flexible working and the preferred ways of working for many people.

Rigid work schedules belonged in an analogue world when the world and workplace were very different.

As we approach a hybrid approach to work, flexibility is crucial. Rather than implementing unhelpful policies, there is an argument that businesses should encourage staff to set their own boundaries. But with that comes an acceptance that when we send emails at a time convenient to us, we cannot expect an instant response. Removing that expectation could reduce the pressure that compels many to reply to messages around the clock.

The freedom to create your own boundaries

There is no avoiding the fact that we need flexible hours in an always-online globalized digital marketplace. It's unrealistic for anyone to expect emails to stop after we clock off for the day. Instead of implementing rigid policies and legislation, businesses could make a more innovative investment of their time by educating teams around upholding boundaries around work emails and group chats.

A culture built on monitoring every employee's behavior and mouse clicks via a productivity score will only succeed in dehumanizing them.

In many cases, its company values and culture will need an upgrade rather than its technology. An engaged and proactive approach to management will be required to ensure the wellbeing of every person in an organization.

Right to disconnect mandates could result in the implementation of strict working hours across the board. But employees are increasingly demanding greater flexibility from their employers. The two actions conflict with each other, and the outlawing of anything will only make the situation even worse.

Upgrading legacy mindsets

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier and empower us to be more efficient. The problem is we have stubbornly clung to the old way of doing things. AI and automation have been feared when together these technologies can enhance productivity, improve working conditions and provide employees with the gift of time to focus on more value-add activities.

In Ireland, they have introduced a code of practice where every employer is encouraged to add a footer on every email to remind their employees that they didn't have to reply to emails out of regular office hours. This simple move sets the scene and makes everyone aware of the rules without impacting flexible working.

There are many examples of countries around the world that are thinking differently. Trials of a four-day week in Iceland revealed that productivity remained the same or improved in most workplaces. Many employees advised they no longer feel stressed or at risk of burnout. The new approach saw dramatic improvements in the health and work-life balance of employees.

In Australia, Dr. Amantha Imber also implemented a four-day week at Inventium and discovered that having five days' worth of work in four made them acutely aware of their choices in how they utilized their time at work. They also found that being more productive made the team happier and healthier.

These examples highlight how there isn't a one-size-fits-all policy to logging off. At a time where businesses need to encourage a more inclusive and diverse workforce, leaders must take the needs of different groups seriously.

Contrary to recent headlines, technology is already making our lives easier and providing greater flexibility to workers. However, the most significant challenges are around the improvement of corporate culture and company values. So rather than fighting for the right to disconnect, maybe workers should be arguing for the right to set their working boundaries for themselves.

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