Legislation on the right to disconnect sounds promising.
Work tools not tied to workplaces
Broadly, the right to disconnect grapples with the physical constraints of traditional work versus today’s digital workplaces. So legislation that makes sense for a factory worker who goes home for the night is applied on the 21st century knowledge worker.
While digital communication and the proliferation of mobile devices can allow workers to extend their work days, they are neither necessary nor sufficient to account for the problem of overwork among knowledge workers. The tools required to perform knowledge work, unlike the physical labour of a factory worker, are not restricted to a physical workspace.
The right to disconnect can be the catalyst an organization needs to review its workplace policies. But what’s really needed is a cultural shift that gives workers more control over how they work.
Asking workers to manage their own work schedules assumes that they have control. In fact, control over work varies by job type, seniority and employer policies among other factors. On one end of the spectrum are assembly workers, subject to the machine’s pace.
In contrast, knowledge workers can exert more control over their work pace and schedules. Openly or surreptitiously, they shop online, use social media, play games and check on their children, all during work hours. For knowledge workers, work and personal time are thus entangled in ways that eight-hour workday legislation did not anticipate.
The right to disconnect also fails to anticipate what Arlie Hochschild, an American sociologist, describes as the “second shift” — household chores, which are often unpaid and performed by women.
Although eight-hour workday rights were designed to help workers enjoy leisure time, for many women, they’re merely a shift in gears to a different type of work from which there is no right to disconnect.
Despite the dubious effectiveness of right to disconnect laws, they raise important questions about the organization of modern work alongside our collective expectations about the kind of work we value as a society and the time it ought to consume. The laws, and the resulting discussions about them, may contribute to a cultural shift away from workaholism, at least around paid work.
Some organizations like Volkswagenand Daimler already introduced restrictions around digital communication several years ago. The right to disconnect may encourage more businesses to take similar measures.
Expanded worker autonomy
But given the variation in worker preferences and implications for job satisfaction, treating the right to disconnect as an authorized refusal to answer emails after 5 p.m. hardly addresses the problem of overwork among knowledge workers. After all, tight deadlines may create the need to work long hours without necessarily communicating with colleagues.
Rather, employers should focus on being flexible and should offer knowledge workers more autonomy around their availability. This is a significant shift that asks employers to trust their knowledge workers to deliver on their tasks.
The right to disconnect can be the catalyst an organization needs to review its policies. However, a cultural shift that destigmatizes a less frenetic pace of work and allows employees more control over their work boundaries will more directly address the problem of overwork.