The right to disconnect and what it means for businesses

The debate on the right to disconnect has intensified in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent need for remote working. The majority of staff have been working from home for the past year – but that’s likely led to more people struggling to switch off from work. This includes replying to emails and messages long after their work hours have finished.

Work and personal time has become even more blurred, something the government is acutely aware of. Earlier this year, it published a National Remote Work Strategy. As part of the paper, Making Remote Work, it’s highlighted a commitment to publish a code of practice on the right to disconnect.

While the code won’t be legally binding, it could be used as evidence in proceedings before the Workplace Relations Commission. France was the first country to introduce rules on this, while Spain, Italy and Belgium have since followed suit.

Meanwhile, earlier in 2021, the European Parliament passed a legislative initiative calling on the European Union to introduce a law on the right to digitally disconnect from work.

Working rules right now

There are those who believe a code of practice is needed, while others have their reservations and believe the current legislation is sufficient.

Disputes that concern working hours currently come under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. According to Section 15 of the Act, employers aren’t allowed to permit employees to work more than an average of 48 hours a week over a reference period. For most employments, that’s four months, while in some cases, it’s six.

In addition, Section 25 says employers have to keep records for three years, so they demonstrate compliance with the Act.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of Working Time Act (Records) (Prescribed Forms and Exemptions) from 2001 highlights the records an employer must keep and it has a template of the types of information that should be recorded.

Remote working and best practice

The rapid adoption of remote working in light of the pandemic has resulted in a steep learning curve both for employers and staff alike. There will be some people who are struggling to switch off and are working longer hours. That’s no good for them – or the business. 

When lockdown restrictions have eased and people can return to the workplace, remote working will still likely be on the agenda. This may be in its full form or via a hybrid model – where employees work from home for some of the week and are based in the official workplace for the rest of it.

The right to disconnect code of practice may help employers set out best practices for their staff. But there may be challenges for businesses, especially smaller ones, to comply – increased admin and managing processes are just two. 

What businesses can do now

The right to disconnect could be on the horizon, so putting processes in place will help businesses in the near future and beyond. A working time policy should be implemented and businesses should clearly communicate it to their staff. Having a system to protect the business from any legal action should be explored too – a good first step is to speak to a legal expert.

In addition, staff could use their email footers to highlight their core working hours. They could let their stakeholders know emails won’t be responded to outside of those hours. Businesses and managers could also support their staff by ensuring they only work their core hours, and don’t feel under pressure to keep working out of hours or during holiday time.

Working life has changed. No matter what the next steps are on regulation, businesses must keep up with the resulting challenges. Putting the right systems in place can help to support staff and ensure their health and wellbeing is prioritised, so they can do their best work.

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