Research carried out by Owl Labs in their annual State of Hybrid Work study, which polled 500 business leaders in the UK, suggests that the majority (84%) of UK businesses plan on having a hybrid, flexible or remote workforce post-pandemic. In addition, only 16% of companies expect employees to return to the office full-time, 59% of business leaders believe that hybrid working makes companies more profitable and 73% of enterprise businesses (1000+ employees) state that hybrid working positively impacts company profits. As a result, 88% of UK business leaders are keen to explore progressive policies aimed at the future of work post-pandemic such as working from anywhere, unlimited holidays and four-day working weeks.
While this may sound positive in principle, the mass adoption of remote working systems over the past 18 months has resulted in an ‘always on’ culture, which unsurprisingly continues to have a negative impact on the work–life balance of employees. Although working from home has been instrumental in helping safeguard employment and business during the COVID-19 crisis, the combination of long working hours and higher demands also leads to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.
Research by Eurofund shows that people who work regularly from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week, compared to those working on their employer’s premises. Almost 30% of those working from home report working in their free time every day or several times a week, compared to less than 5% of office workers.
Although it may at first seem beneficial to an organisation that staff are regularly working out of hours to get jobs done and respond to queries, it can actually be very damaging. Staff who are not able to properly rest after a day’s work, and continue the stresses of work out of hours, can become burned out, less productive and disillusioned in their role. This can lead to issues in retention and morale – things that can be very damaging for an organisation as a whole.
The right to disconnect allows employees to completely step away from work outside of their normal hours. This right fundamentally means that every employee is able to switch off and enjoy their free time away from work without being disturbed, unless there is an emergency or a specific agreement to do so; for example, while ‘on call’. While it is always good practice not to expect employees to work out of hours, and therefore avoid contacting them during this time, the right to disconnect goes one step further. Not only does it prohibit this behaviour from management, it also gives employees the entitlement to switch off their communication devices and send automated emails when they are not available. The expectation is very much that if a member of staff is contacted out of hours, they are actively encouraged to only respond when back in work.
Some argue that there is a need for government intervention to tackle this ’always on’ culture, but others are in favour of leaving it up to employers and allowing them to implement the necessary internal measures. Some employers do take steps to remind their employees that they are under no obligation to send or respond to emails outside their standard working hours, while others restrict their remote access. Some have gone as far as deleting emails that are sent to employees while on holiday. While it is probably impossible to impose a ban on all out-of-hours emails and calls, you can certainly encourage your workforce to break free from ’work mode’ while on annual leave. To give them more peace of mind, you should make sure there is sufficient cover, a proper handover has been completed and that you agree on how to contact them if an emergency situation does arise.
If you do notice that someone is compulsively answering emails out of standard hours, you can send them a reminder or bring it up in their next review or feedback session. You can also provide your managers with training on good management practices to curb those who do overload staff. In particular, you may need to provide training on how to spot signs of stress and what appropriate action they can take to remedy the situation.
You may have noticed a recent flurry of articles and posts on LinkedIn discussing how you could edit your company email signature to include a comment on flexible work schedules in an attempt to reduce the pressure a recipient feels to respond within a certain timeframe. This could be a simple, but highly effective way to show that your company supports both your staff’s right to disconnect, and the rights of the people outside of your organisation to do the same. Some popular suggestions for email signatures include:
- I work on a flexible work schedule and across a number of time zones; I’m sending this message now because it works for me. Feel free to read, act on or respond at a time that suits you.
- At [company name], we value and respect flexible work arrangements so please only respond when you are working.
- Please do not feel any pressure to respond to this email outside of your own work schedule.
- My work day may look different to yours. Please do not feel obligated to respond out of your normal working hours.
Not only can enshrining these practices in policy help promote greater staff wellbeing, it can also be an effective way for your organisation to demonstrate it cares for its workforce; something that can help retain staff and attract new employees. As more organisations explore ways in which staff can continue to work from home on a more permanent basis, a right to disconnect policy could prove very appealing for many looking for new work. Organisations should always remember that if they choose not to introduce something of this nature, a competitor probably will!
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