The Right to Disconnect – Step Forward or Déjà vu
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The Right to Disconnect – Step Forward or Déjà vu

on 04 March 2021

​I guess there was never a year which had so many expectations as it is for 2021. Following a disastrous 2020, this year has started positively, managing to reach a number of important milestones in such a short period of time - vaccines against Covid-19 started being rolled out worldwide; NASA released the first videos and colour photos of their mission to Mars and we also had the first female Vice-President of the US sworn in.

When it comes to recruitment and employment, things also seem to be moving in the right direction. Rather than hearing about recruitment being put on hold, or redundancies due to lack of business, now it seems a good number of companies are initiating discussions to resume recruitment campaigns in order to address internal gaps and possibly expand further.

Results-driven mentality

When it comes to employment, we have noticed a shift towards a results-driven approach, whereby rather than having employers managing their teams by the number of hours they spend at the office, they were now being managed by the results obtained, independent whether they work 8am-5pm, 10am-7pm or flexible hours. This shift in mentality has helped to bring about another concept – the Right to Disconnect.

At its January 2021 plenary, the European Parliament approved a resolution to adopt a Maltese-led report recommending legislative action on the right to disconnect, giving workers the right to ignore phone calls, emails or other work-related communications outside of office hours.

It's now in the hands of the European Commission to enact this legislation and recommend all EU member states to adopt a minimum set of standards that guarantee workers the right to disconnect. This doesn’t mean that it will be illegal to work extra hours, but will help employees not to feel pressured to carry out work-related duties outside their regular working hours, such as answering emails or phone calls.

Why is that?

Consequent to the pandemic, a lot of businesses shifted their workforce to remote-working, and rightly so. However, this led to employees working longer hours or feel ‘obliged’ to work longer hours given home and office environment has become same thing.

The report recommends a directive that would introduce the minimum requirement of using digital tools outside working time and offer the right to disconnect for all workers, giving the ability for workers to impose certain thresholds. Employees will also be able to ask for fair compensation and be protected when looking to enforce their rights, to ensure they do not face negative repercussions if they refuse to answer emails after office hours.

Déjà vu

It is important to point out that a number of international companies already have certain measures in place to protect their employees and limit after hours disturbance. In 2011, Volkswagen implemented a policy stating that it would stop email servers from sending emails to the mobile phones of employees between 6pm and 7am. In 2013 Germany's employment ministry banned its managers from contacting staff after hours as part of a wider agreement on remote working.

Conclusion

Flexibility is essential when dealing with such matters. Many companies need a culture change since not all emails are urgent, and Friday night emails can wait until Monday.

Whilst I do believe that such directive is another step forward, an important point regarding flexibility needs to be made - a one-size-fits-all won’t work. Different economic sectors have different needs, and one has to also take into consideration what is to be classified as urgent or non-urgent. Besides, many workplaces offer disturbance allowances or duly compensate their staff for replying to emails or answer calls after-hours. Will this allowance be affected by the right to disconnect? And what about those who are officially working flexi-time - at what time would the right to disconnect apply?

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