The boundaries between home and work became blurred when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many jobs to be shifted online. Workers who were not permitted to come into their workplaces were working on computers in their living rooms, dining areas, spare rooms (if they had one), and even closets and bedroom. But even before that, boundaries were already being blurred by communications technology such as cellphones, text messaging, and email, allowing employers to contact employees at any hour of the day or night – which for many workers made them feel as if they are never really off work.
Ontario’s labour minister has proposed a legal “right to disconnect” is a step toward solving the problem of employers expecting workers to always be “on”. This is an important initiative, and the problem needs to be addressed. But this on its own is not going to fix the more fundamental and widespread workplace issues that the pandemic has highlighted, and which should be more of a priority.
The legal “right to disconnect” was first implemented in France in 2017, allowing employees to not answer work-related emails or calls during their time off. Canada’s federal government struck a task force in 2020 to explore the possibility of similar legislation for federally regulated occupations. Ontario’s proposed legislation would require organizations with 25 or more employees to develop policies around work-related communications, such as establishing expectations for response times to emails.
It might seem that policies like this could cause even more stress for workers and employers, by compressing working time while maintaining expectations of continued productivity. However, some research has suggested that the effects of disconnecting might be more positive than negative. Between 2008 and 2014, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow and her research team conducted a series of experiments at the Boston Consulting Group – chosen as a research site because consulting is a high-pressure, competitive and demanding occupation. The “predictable time off” experiments in the research included scheduling consultants to take one full day off every week, or stopping work at 6 pm at least one day per week.
The results were surprising. At first the participants were afraid of the change, fearing that they would be seen as not sufficiently committed to their employer and their work by not being available 24/7. They also worried about getting their work completed in less working time. But gradually, their attitudes changed. The participants in the experiment became more satisfied with their jobs and with their work-life balance. Because workers had to collaborate to ensure that projects were adequately staffed, there was better communication within and across teams. Managers found that work was being conducted more efficiently, and participants also reported being more likely to stay with the company in the long run.
The research resulted in another unexpected benefit of predictable time off, if everyone on the team, including management, commits to disconnecting. Predictable time off breaks what Perlow and her collaborators call the “cycle of responsiveness”. That cycle kicks in when, for example, one person with a few free moments in their evening replies to an email or text, someone else answers late that night, and then another person responds early the next morning. Eventually this kind of behaviour creates an unintended cultural norm of immediate availability, regardless of the time of day or night. Setting defined work hours and sticking to them breaks that cycle, and ensures that when employees have time off, it truly is time off, during which they can rest, recharge, or engage in other activities.
The huge increase during the pandemic in the numbers of Canadians working partly or completely at home has emphasized the importance of separation between work and non-work time. Even though there would obviously be practical problems with enforcing a legislated “right to disconnect”, being legally able to disconnect – especially when the guidelines for disconnection are mutually agreed upon by workers and management – would promote more psychologically healthy workplaces and possibly more productive ones.
However, in promoting the benefits of the “right to disconnect”, it should not be overlooked that there are larger and more widespread flaws in how Canadian workplaces operate. Legislated paid sick leave for all workers is long overdue, not only to protect workers during the pandemic, but also to protect their customers or clients. The impact of the pandemic on women, who were suddenly working at home while also overseeing their children’s education or managing their households, shows that many workplaces still operate on unequal assumptions about gender roles, and that workplaces and jobs are often not structured in ways that support important non-work parts of employees’ lives. The so-called “Great Resignation” shows that the pandemic has led many employees to find work that aligns more closely with their personal values and goals. And all of this is in the context of workplace and employment standards legislation that is still largely based on the unspoken – and often outdated – assumption that people work for one employer, that they go to a workplace to do their work, and that they work on predictable and defined schedules.
The “right to disconnect” is important, and any moves toward achieving it are worthwhile. But there are larger problems in our evolving workplaces that also need attention. Solving those problems will do much more to improve workers’ lives and their workplaces than will turning off cellphones or email.