May 13

Supporting the right to disconnect

As more and more people are working from home, the lines between work-life and home-life can be blurred. Employers and staff need to be proactive and clear around expectations around work hours especially in relation to email contact. Worklogic senior consultant, Louisa Dickinson discusses the right to disconnect in the latest Worklogic blog.

The “right to disconnect” has come into focus recently. Following reports of a new clause included in the most recent Victoria Police Enterprise Agreement,[1] and with an the increase in people working from home due to the  Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of the right to disconnect is more pertinent than ever before.

The agreement requires managers to respect leave and rest days and avoid contacting officers outside work hours, unless in an emergency or to check on their welfare.  Examples of an emergency include recalling a member for a bushfire, pandemic, terrorist attack or similar event.

It covers all members from recruits to Senior Sergeants and applies unless they’re in receipt of an availability allowance and is based on concerns about so called “availability creep” and the resulting negative impacts on members’ well-being.

The adoption of this right follows the enactment internationally of laws aimed at addressing the increasing trend of employees being contacted out of hours and working additional hours of unpaid overtime.  The first of these commenced in France in 2017 and requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. Other European  countries such as Italy, have followed and the European Parliament  voted earlier this year to grant workers the right to refrain from answering emails and calls outside working hours, including when on holidays or leave, as well as protection from adverse actions against those who disconnect.[2]

Locally, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has also made comments which suggest right to disconnect provisions (in non-emergency situations) will become more regular feature of enterprise bargaining in future.

However, given that only 15 per cent of Australian employees are covered by Enterprise Agreements,[3] unless a specific right to disconnect is incorporated into modern awards or the National Employment Standards , it is unlikely to become a mainstream workplace right per se

The right to disconnect is about work life balance and wellbeing and the recent emergence in the collective consciousness around these ideas is a timely prompt. It is an opportunity for employers to reflect and improve the way we work and respond to the increasing need many employees have for a greater separation between work and the rest of their lives.

Rather than waiting for their employees to seek to negotiate or demand this right, those who want to be employers of choice will be proactive in meeting the needs of their staff and reaching agreement around how and when out of hours contact should occur.  Here are some tips to assist meeting those needs:

  • Discuss your expectations of your employees’ availability to respond via email or to phone calls out of hours.  The nature of some work means that there will be times when out of hours contact is essential and unavoidable. Make sure that this is clearly explained from the outset and is included in your employment contracts and job descriptions.  Be upfront from the outset, if reasonable overtime is required.  
  • Speak to your employees about their preferences and needs.  As we know, having agency, choice and flexibility (where possible) are fundamental to workplace satisfaction.  Be aware that there is no one size fits all approach.  Everyone has different needs. For some, working at odd times suits their lives but this isn’t always the case for all employees.
  • Empower your employees to use email in a way that works best for them. For example, if they choose to send emails at night, encourage them to have a footer that states something like, “I work flexibly and if you have received this email outside of regular business hours, please note that I do not expect you to provide an immediate response to it.”   
  • Reflect on your own email habits and whether they are working for you and others.  For example, before you hit reply all, think about whether everyone really needs to be aware of the information in the email? Do they need to take the time out of their lives to read it?  Can it wait?
  • Model the behaviour that you would like to encourage, with an emphasis on what is actually the most effective form of communication.  In a recent facilitated discussion I conducted, I noted with interest that the parties agreed “to talk more and email less” as a way of improving their communication and overall working relationships.
  • Have regular discussions with your staff about the out of hours time spent responding to emails and how they are feeling about this.  Someone commented to me recently, “it’s not working from home, it’s living in the office.”  Ensure that time spent on out of hours communication is considered work and recognised as such.
  • Strongly encourage employees to disconnect, particularly when they are on leave.  This means ensuring that they use out of office messages and provide a contingency plan if work is required by their role, when they are on leave. Promote the idea to staff that annual and personal leave are necessary periods of downtime from the workplace. If you need to be in touch with an employee during this time, communicate this and explain that you will only do so if it’s urgent and necessary.
  • Encourage self-reflection. Work life balance is a well-being issue in which employers and employees both have responsibilities. Employers, clearly have a duty to provide a safe workplace but employees also share a responsibility for their own health and safety. Encourage them to reflect and monitor how they’re travelling.
  • Consider other alternatives to email, like team collaboration applications such as Slack , Yammer and Padlet.  At Worklogic, we use a Slack channel to post team member’s whereabouts for the day. We have another channel to share holiday snaps, and another for the posting any articles of interest.
  • Encourage employees to have personal email accounts, rather than using their work account for everything.  It is remarkable how many people provide their work email addresses for things outside of work.  Aside from the fact that this adds to the number of emails received at work each day, it means that employees will inevitably look at work emails when they are checking on the start time of the Saturday netball game. This can contribute to a feeling of burn-out.
  • Be creative and think about other options, such as setting a timer to delay the time that communication is delivered.  In 2012, following complaints that staff’s work and home lives were becoming blurred, Volkswagen in Germany agreed to stop routing emails to some non-management employees 30 minutes after the end of their shifts, and only then starting them again 30 minutes before they return to work.[1]
  • Unless otherwise agreed, only call staff on their days off or out of hours in emergency situations

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-16314901


[1] The Victoria Police (Police Officers, Protective Services Officers, Police Reservists and Police Recruits) Enterprise Agreement 2019.

[2] EU parliament Resolution on the right to disconnect (ioe-emp.org)

[3] Enterprise bargaining back into decline (afr.com)

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