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Right to Disconnect: What Does It Mean?

right to disconnect

Recently, the Victoria Police enterprise agreement included a ‘right to disconnect’ from work. But even though this might sound like a new term, the right to disconnect has been a topic of discussion for a few years. In 2017, French legislation was passed that required companies to regulate the use of digital devices after hours to respect private lives. Here we consider this issue and how it applies to SME owners and employees.

Why the right to disconnect matters

Although the boundaries between work and personal life have become blurred with the proliferation of digital tools, COVID-19 has intensified this issue as more employees work from home. The term “availability creep” describes the phenomenon where workers are expected to answer phone calls and emails outside of typical office hours. The 24/7 non-stop business world also means that business owners and managers are also expected to be available in the evenings and over weekends. That’s why the issue of the right to disconnect has come up in recent years.

This situation has led large public-sector unions to seek right to disconnect clauses in employment agreements, with ACTU Secretary Sally McManus saying, “It is essential that working people be able to disconnect. This is especially important for people who perform psychologically stressful work.” 

At the same time, business groups have called for a balanced approach that reflects the modern 24/7 economy and gives employees autonomy. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s acting chief executive Jenny Lambert said, “Whilst a right to disconnect may be well-intentioned, it is unlikely to be welcomed by many employees, including those who prefer to deal with work and communication in a way that suits their personality.” 

Traditionally, some sectors have been notorious for their long hours and lack of work-life balance even before the digital age. These include law firms, consulting firms, and real estate agencies.

Growth of flexible work and the right to disconnect

Flexible working arrangements have grown in popularity in Australia as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey by Pitcher Partners and Bastion Collective found that 57% of employers have introduced or expanded flexible working arrangements as a result of the pandemic. This includes the option to work from home some or all days. The majority of employees have accepted these new arrangements, with only 32% of employees not wanting to work any days from home, with the rest wanting to work from 1 to 5 days per week. 

Both employees and employers recognise the challenges of flexible working arrangements but to differing degrees, with 24% of employees and 15% of employers saying there are no problems with flexible work. The biggest issues were lack of socialisation/isolation (20%) for employees and overseeing/managing employees and their productivity (28%) for employers.  Interestingly, employees didn’t mention availability creep or the right to disconnect as a challenge of flexible working.

Taking steps to make the right to disconnect work

A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for all employees and businesses when considering the right to disconnect. For example, one staff member might want to take time off occasionally during the day to attend their child’s school functions and make up that time on the evenings and weekends. In this case, it would be agreed that they could disconnect to business hours and make that time up at other times. Some employees might not have these requirements, but simply like to start work later and end later in the day. While others might want to work traditional business hours and not be contacted after hours. 

Given these differences, employers need to discuss requirements and preferences and create guidelines for flexibility and the right to disconnect. These can include expectations about availability, when you can contact staff, and how long it will take to respond. This will depend on how each employee feels about the need to disconnect from work and the employer’s needs. These guidelines can answer questions, such as “If my employer contacts me at 6.00 pm on Friday evening, can I respond Monday morning?”  

For businesses that need to be available 24/7 to follow up on urgent matters, the solution could be to develop a rotating roster to cover times after typical business hours.

How can business owners and managers disconnect?

Most of the focus on the right to disconnect has been focused on employees. But many business owners and managers aren’t able to disconnect. Research published by Inside Small business revealed that 10% of small business owners reported working between 50 and 59 hours per week, with 16% working 60 hours or more. In many cases, wanting to disconnect from the business is balanced by the realities of running a business, especially for sole trader businesses with no employees. 

According to the Small Business Owners Mental Health Report, the average stress level for business owners when it comes to finding a balance between the demands of work, family and personal life is ranked at 6.3, on a scale of 10. For many service businesses, this number is above 7 out of 10, with the highest being 7.8 out of 10 for business owners involved in public administration and safety. 

The key to disconnecting for business owners is setting boundaries for staff and clients. For staff, this might include setting times and conditions when they should contact you. What types of situations should they call or email you after hours? Can it wait until regular business hours? Part of the solution is to delegate more responsibility, including decision making, to staff. Having written policies and procedures in place makes it possible to delegate more tasks and boost work-life balance. 

Setting expectations for customers will depend on how you respond. If you receive an email about a non-urgent matter at 10.00 pm and reply immediately, you are creating the expectations that you are available 24/7. If it’s not urgent, wait until the next business day to respond to the email or write your response and schedule it to be sent the next business day.

Striking a balance for disconnecting

Every business is different when it comes to disconnecting. While some are able to stick to traditional hours, others need to be available to serve customers around the clock. Whatever your situation, it’s a good idea to consider how you can enable your staff (if you have employees) and yourself to set boundaries for disconnecting. The result will be increased long-term productivity and improved wellbeing. 

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