By Joseph Perry
Many European countries now have laws in place to stop employees working excessive hours. Almost all of us have done jobs (such as the one I did working at Woolworths as a sales assistant) where we didn’t need to switch off from work outside of normal working hours and didn’t think again about work after the shift ended. Once I was off the shop floor, I had no anxiety about the pick and mix. Undertaking progressively larger roles work has encroached on our time with friends, family and our hobbies. Leaders often want answers more quickly and working across different time zones adds further complexity as to when you can switch off.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic and increases in remote working have meant that many of us are working more intensively and for longer than we did before. There is a plethora of statistics telling us how much more work we are doing (often for no more pay) from the CIPD, TUC and unions such as Prospect. If we have the time or the energy to read them after a day of zoom calls.
But the issue of being able to switch off from work pre-dated Covid-19. Policies and initiatives on work-life balance and flexible working were intended to address the mental and physical impact of working longer and more intensively due to changes in the nature of work, improvements in technology and increasing numbers of jobs in the knowledge economy. And in response several unions have well developed campaigns and guidance in this area and have been engaging with organisations for several years on the issues which arise. Prospect have research and templates to inform and support collective bargaining. At a global level, the union UniGLobal has a well-developed guide for those in managerial roles and has highlighted best practice to help support changes in the workplace. This is constructive and useful material to help ensure that the work life balance is weighed correctly. But issues persist.
At a national level, Governments in France, Spain and Italy have introduced legislation which establishes explicit rights in this area or have implemented specific obligations to engage with workplace representatives. Ireland has recently introduced a code of practice (and a helpful remote working checklist) and Germany has followed a more voluntary approach with Volkswagen being held as a paradigm in this area. However, anecdotal feedback is mixed and real evidence on the impact of specific initiatives on the right to disconnect are thin on the ground.
So would a legislative approach in the UK make any difference? The right to request flexible working was introduced in 2003 and the recent enforced move to working remotely and more flexibly as a result of the pandemic highlights the ultimate ineffectiveness of this approach. Anecdotally and based on the statistics of the number of people now working flexibly compared with before March 2020, we all know there were big gaps in this approach. Will a specific law make a difference? We have laws on many areas in employment such as equal pay, but 51 years after the Equal Pay Act, (now part of the Equality Act 2010) the gender pay gap in Britain remains amongst the highest in the EU.
As with many organisational issues the real issues to address are leadership and culture. There needs to be:
· Top level support and leadership buy-in. People have to believe it is going to happen and that everyone will be involved. Equity is important;
· A clear statement of what the right to disconnect actually means in each organisation and strict rules and clear mechanisms for taking time off;
· Structured team discussions about what does and does not work, and why as well as engagement with trade unions and staff representatives about the right approach in each organisation;
· Specific discussions about diary and expectation management. It is important to talk about the how as well as the what;
· The chance to pilot different elements and be willing to experiment and review feedback.
A key part of the answer is structuring predictable and regular time off and ensuring it happens.
Without clear communication from the top of the organisation that this is an important issue which must be prioritised and without the systems and processes to ensure this is implemented effectively it is likely that little will change, whatever the law says.
Even the Economist recognises the advantages of being (nearly) out of the office.