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Jan 28, 2021

Is It Time for a Right to Disconnect?

The right to disconnect upholds the liberty of people to disconnect from work and work-related communications after normal working hours.
Representative image. Photo: Unsplash/Ruthson Zimmerman/CC0/ Wikimedia Commons

The right to disconnect has been a much debated issue.

Lately, echoes of the same resonated again when EU lawmakers passed a resolution arguing that individuals have a fundamental right to disconnect. The right to disconnect upholds the liberty of people to disconnect from work and work-related communications (e-mails, messages etc.) after normal working hours. It endorses the fact that workers should be allowed to be offline without apprehensions of employer retribution.

The pandemic has ushered in new forms of work with work from home becoming a norm. At least 98% of employees in IT majors in India like TCS, Infosys, Wipro are expected to continue working from home till March 2021. Further, TCS announced that 75% of its staff will permanently work from home by 2025. Developments like these herald a new era for job designs.

It is not wrong to say that most people love the flexibility that work from home offers. Working in a flexible environment can be liberating. It gives an employee a sense of ownership over one’s schedule. However, excessive demands of work may impinge on personal time and push the otherwise relieved worker into a high-stress territory. Studies have pointed out that the initial euphoria that accompanied work from home is gradually waning. What started with a bang is mellowing into a whimper.

Staying connected round the clock has started taking a toll on workers. Research findings show that after months of homeworking, employees are now showing signs of fatigue, burnout, depression and health disorders. The boundary between work and home life has become blurred, leading to excessive encroachment in people’s private lives. Employees are baffled with a ‘stream of pings’ overtaking their personal space. This has brought to the fore demands related to the right to disconnect.

Several countries in Europe already have some form of right to disconnect. France became a trendsetter when it introduced the “El Khomri” law, proposed by the then labour minister Myriam El Khomri, in support of the right to disconnect. Italy has incorporated a similar right regarding employee’s obligation to communicate beyond office hours.

In Spain and Germany, companies are adopting disconnect policies. Lawmakers in UK too have mooted the idea of giving employees the right to disconnect. The demand is picking up steam in the US as well.

In 2018, the Right to Disconnect Bill was introduced by Supriya Sule, MP from NCP, in the Lok Sabha. The Bill proposed that no disciplinary action can be taken if an employee does not respond to work-related calls after working hours. The Bill could not be passed as it was a private member’s bill, and no such bill has become an Act in India since 1970.

Also read: We Need to Talk About ‘Work From Home’

The loopholes

While the right to disconnect sounds logical in principle, there are inherent intricacies in implementing it. There may be issues with respect to jobs that require emergency services or where human lives are involved, like that of a medical practitioner. Any right to disconnect needs to consider that in case of MNCs, employees work across different temporal and spatial zones. Completely switching off may not be practical.

In several industries, work flow is tethered along a value chain that spans across geographies. Each entity in the value chain is cog in the wheel. If one entity is disconnected, it may lead to disturbance in seamless delivery of the product or service. This may leave customer or client expectations unattended leading to the possibility of customer drop-outs.

Workers stitch garments at a factory of an apparel shop in Jaipur, India, October 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis/File photo

Exigencies at the workplace often require going beyond time frameworks. Any mishaps at the factory or plant cannot be addressed immediately if people disconnect. Often there is backlog of work due to which disconnecting may not be advisable. Further, since work from home allows flexibility, many feel that right to disconnect may not be needed at all.

In many cases, individuals have freedom to adjust work schedules, obviating the need to disconnect. One argument is that since nobody is usually penalised for not replying to calls or emails, it is fine to keep the lines a little hazy.

If the right to disconnect becomes a legal right, the big question for employers would be how to police the system. In case people take calls during the ‘disconnect’ time, will they be punished for non-compliance? Will the legal machinery initiate action? To adopt the right to disconnect, the basics need to be addressed first. Even after three years of the law being in effect in France, there are loopholes in its enforcement.

Also read: How Indian Millennials Perceived Working From Home During the Pandemic

‘Disconnect from work’ policies

Several organisations have voluntarily put in place ‘disconnect from work’ policies. German companies like Volkswagen and Daimler have implemented policies to stop email servers from sending mails to employees during off hours. In Sweden, the average employee works only about six hours a day, compared to the global average of eight hours.

Reduced work hours and more leisure time have led to a marked reduction in absenteeism and improved health and productivity. Even companies in work-obsessed Japan are going against the tide and combating the “always on culture” by allowing employees to disconnect.

Implementing the right to disconnect will necessitate realistically reviewing employee workloads and rationalising schedules. There is a need to lay down clear working guidelines. Some companies in Japan have innovatively implemented a staggered ‘disconnect framework’ where one employee takes over the responsibility of another who has disconnected. Work time and leaves are scheduled in a way so that work flow remains unhampered.

With more and more employees expected to work on project-based assignments and with gig working becoming common, synchronising teams can be the Achilles’ heel for management. To disconnect or not remains a dilemma.

Professor Feza Tabassum Azmi works at Faculty of Management Studies and Research, Aligarh Muslim University, India. She has authored Strategic Human Resource Management, Cambridge University Press, University of Cambridge, UK.

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