Implementing an organisational right to disconnect policy: key considerations for employers

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People scrolling through phones © Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

The pandemic has driven a sharp surge in remote and hybrid working, increasing from 5.7% of workers in January/February 2020 to a UK average of 31.5% during the first national lockdown. This remained high into 2021, with 29% of workers nationwide working exclusively remotely in March 2021.

Our new research with Newcastle University Business School explores the impacts of and prospects for remote working in the North of England, and found that work-life balance has posed a significant challenge to workers throughout the pandemic. While remote working is positively impacting the lives of many workers, with reductions in commuting time and cost, and the ability to spend more time with family members, for some it has also led to the blurring of boundaries between their work and personal lives. Almost all interviewees reiterated the challenges of a perceived need to be constantly available on chats as well as videocall fatigue.

Rightly, this is something that many employers have already began to take steps to address. One that we spoke to has banned meetings between 12 and 2pm. Another has asked managers not to send emails during weekends to avoid putting pressure on their staff to read them outside working hours. They recognise that if remote work is to continue at scale post-pandemic, it is important to establish clear boundaries to protect employees’ mental health.

Formalising these arrangements to facilitate a healthy work-life balance through creating an organisational Right to Disconnect Policy is the clear next step to protect and enhance employee wellbeing. Indeed, as take-up of remote working increases, this new model is already rapidly gaining traction, both among employers including Volkswagen, as well as through legislation, with countries including Ireland, France and Spain introducing a legal Right to Disconnect.

Developed through consultation with staff and worker representatives, an internal policy would aim to establish a shared approach to work communications that supports workers to fully disengage from work outside of core hours and while on leave. However, there are key issues that employers should consider:

Balancing the right to disconnect with the right to work flexibly

A core issue that many employers will come up against is the seemingly inherent incompatibility of flexible schedules and the right to log off in the first place. Eileen Schofield, a UK employee rights lawyer recently told the BBC that most current guidance around the right to disconnect is based on establishing ‘normal’ working, hours, but very few of us have worked a regular pattern of hours over the past year; “The right to disconnect is likely to mean that this total flexibility will not be completely viable.”

While this may be the case in terms of legislating on these issues at the national level, there are steps that can be taken at the organisational level to ensure flexibility for all while maintaining work-life balance.

Requesting regular feedback

There should be regular opportunities for staff to provide feedback on the right to disconnect policy. Is the policy working as intended, and if not what needs to be changed? This is important as often new policies attempting to enact positive change can have unforeseen drawbacks. For example, the right to disconnect policy at Volkswagen means that servers are configured so that emails are not sent outside of regular working hours, which completely removes any scope for workers to choose to work in the evenings around other responsibilities, and also creates an added layer of complication if having to work across time zones.

Results of this feedback, like with all staff surveys, should be published internally with identifiable actions to take forward. Furthermore, staff should be regularly consulted on what more needs to be done at the organisational to protect their wellbeing and work-life balance.

The right to disconnect should be part of a wider cultural change

Staff should make clear in email signatures that they work flexibly, and a response outside of the recipient’s own working hours is not expected. Meetings and calls should be scheduled with advanced notice, considering the working patterns of all attendees, to ensure that each individual’s personal time is respected. Managers should lead by example, e.g. by setting expectations and highlighting the importance of the right to disconnect to clients and external partners.

Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to suggest that enacting the right to disconnect will be an overnight success, nor will it cure all issues relating to work-life balance and burnout. Instead of being a standalone initiative, this right should be one policy within a much broader package aimed at enhancing employee wellbeing.

Overall, worker engagement will be key in developing the right approach to implementing this policy. Indeed, in places such as France, where there is already legislation on the right to disconnect, the details are ultimately fixed at the organisational level in consultation with staff and worker representatives, ensuring that this right truly works for all.


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