What the right to disconnect means for employers

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent need for remote working has intensified the debate on the right to disconnect. As employees have spent the past year working from home, it’s likely resulted in more people finding it hard to switch off from work and avoid engaging in emails and messages during non-work hours.

The government is aware that work and personal time have become even more blurred and recently published a National Remote Work Strategy. As part of the paper, Making Remote Work, there’s a commitment to publish a code of practice on the right to disconnect.

The code won’t be legally binding, however it could be used as evidence in proceedings before the Workplace Relations Commission. Spain, Italy and Belgium have introduced regulations on this, following in the footsteps of France, which was the first country to do so.

Meanwhile, at the start of this year, the European Parliament passed a legislative initiative that called on the European Union to bring in a law on the right to digitally disconnect from work.

Current working rules

Some commentators believe the code of practice is needed, while others have reservations about it and say the current legislation is sufficient.

At the moment, disputes that concern working hours come under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. Section 15 of the Act says employers can’t permit employees to work more than an average of 48 hours a week over a reference period. That’s normally four months for most employments; in some cases, it’s six months.

Section 25 also states that employers must keep records for three years, so they demonstrate compliance with the Act.

Then there’s the Organisation of Working Time Act (Records) (Prescribed Forms and Exemptions) from 2001. This highlights the records that an employer is required to keep. It also features a template of the type of information that needs to be recorded.

Remote working and regulation

Many employers and employees have needed to adapt to remote working quickly in light of the pandemic. That, for some, has resulted in a steep learning curve. There are reports indicating that some employees are struggling to switch off and are working longer hours, which is no good for them – or for their employers. 

Remote working is likely to remain on the agenda in the future – be it in a full form or via a hybrid model, where employees are working remotely for part of the week and are in the official workplace for the rest of it.

The code of practice could help employers to set out best practices for their employees – and their businesses as a whole. But there may be challenges for employers – especially those at smaller businesses – to comply, especially with the need to manage processes and deal with increased admin. 

What employers can do now

The right to disconnect may well be on the horizon, so implementing processes now will help employers both in the short and long term. A working time policy should be put in place and employers should clearly communicate it to the workforce. And having a system to protect the business from any legal action should be considered – speaking to a legal expert is a good first step.

There’s a series of simple tactics that could be put in place now. Employees could use their email footers to highlight their core working hours. They could let their contacts know emails won’t be responded to outside of those hours.

Employers and managers could also work to support their employees and help them ensure that they only work their core hours, and don’t feel under pressure to keep working. That’s especially true when working at home, where it’s easy to carry on late in the night because there’s no natural break between work life and home life, such as the commute between work and home.

Whatever the next steps are on regulation, working life has changed and employers need to keep up with the resulting challenges. By putting the right systems in place, employers can ensure their employees are working the right number of hours so they can perform at their best.

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