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Are Right to Disconnect laws the right idea?

DEK: Several countries have enacted or are considering Right to Disconnect laws. Here’s what tech leaders need to know about these laws and the broader concerns around the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between work and life.

Led by France, several European countries have implemented or are considering Right to Disconnect laws, a topic that has regained prominence as remote work has become increasingly normalized.

In essence, these laws mandate that employees are under no obligation to respond to email or other communications outside working hours. In some cases, they can’t be required to bring their computers, files, or other work-related tools home with them. More importantly, employers are prohibited from punishing workers for not being available outside working hours.

While France passed its Right to Disconnect law before the global pandemic, interest in these laws has been rekindled as an increasing number of people find themselves working remotely or in a hybrid environment.

Many can attest to the challenges of an always-on working culture—a challenge that’s become especially acute due to mobile devices’ abilities to connect us with work from nearly anywhere in the world. A proliferation of communication and collaboration tools has further exacerbated this problem.

Many companies have an unwritten expectation that you’ll be reachable outside regular business hours and that you’ll monitor email, Slack or Teams, text messages, WhatsApp, and a handful of other channels that might drop an unexpected request in at any time.

The burnout problem

At their core, concepts like Right to Disconnect laws strive to address the toll that an expectation of 24/7 connectivity places on workers. A large body of research shows the cognitive and physical toll from a lack of sleep and constant multitasking and juggling Slack, email and video calls hamper worker performance.

Furthermore, we’ve all likely witnessed or perhaps unwittingly participated in the sad sight of a couple or family out to dinner, each person glued to a screen, or one adult having a harried conversation on a device while their dining partners look on.

SEE: Burnout technology emerging to help flag employees at risk (TechRepublic)

While debates on these issues are evolving, too many cultures and workplaces still celebrate the culture of constant connection, bragging about the vacation days they missed, their overloaded inboxes or the number of emails they sent at 3 a.m. while on holiday.

From a practical perspective, these pressures damage your ability to retain and grow employees in a hot job market.

Laws versus culture

While Right to Disconnect laws bring the force of regulation to fixing a very real problem, they’re often designed as a one-size-fits-all approach to issues that can be nuanced and have a variety of mitigations that appeal to different people. Arguably, laws are also a result of a cultural failing, with individuals and organizations failing so severely at fixing a problem that government intervention is the only recourse.

While culture can seem like a mercurial concept best left to HR (human resources) or the CEO, each of us helps create and advance the culture of our teams and organizations. For example, I was recently speaking with one of my leaders about summer plans, and he chastised me in a friendly way for only planning one week of vacation over the summer. This simple comment is how culture gets created and makes it clear that time away from work was an important and expected activity.

Simple acts like talking about your plans to unplug during holidays or vacation or how you make a conscious effort to put away devices or carve out time for uninterrupted focus on your family will set one culture. Similarly, bragging about how many midnight video conferences you attended and how many hours you spent locked in your hotel room while your family romped on the beach during your last vacation will create another culture.

Use the tech to your advantage

It’s easy to blame technology for the pervasive nature of work, but like all tools, it can be used for good or evil. For example, forgo video conferences for walking while talking during a meeting, or use features like delayed sending for emails to show you respect your teammates’ time outside working hours. Also, ask your team members how they like to be contacted, and set expectations around how and when you’ll contact them if an urgent matter occurs.

Similarly, if you work with global teams that might require interactions during unconventional times, allow your teams the freedom to set their working schedules. Creating a culture where it’s okay to unplug might mean taking afternoons for family time and personal activities and then doing a short block of work in the evening to coincide with another time zone.

The primary remedy for laws that impose a one size fits all solution on a problem is providing your teams with a wide variety of self-selected solutions to the same problem. It might be tempting to assume the challenges around unplugging are someone else’s problem, but creating a culture that mitigates the need for these laws should start with you as a leader and example to your colleagues.

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