A Right to Disconnect?

As technology continues to enhance connectivity, some lawmakers are questioning whether workplace laws should be updated to regulate after-hours work expectations.

The New York City Council is weighing legislation that would prevent private employers from requiring workers to check and respond to work communications, such as emails and texts, outside of designated hoursit doesn’t prevent workers from staying connected, but rather prohibits employers from mandating such, and protects employees who choose to disregard out-of-office work from retaliation.

Companies that violate the law could be subject to fines of at least $250 for each incident.

The New York proposal is thought to be the first of its kind in the U.S., and was modeled after a similar measure that was adopted in France. However, that law applied to companies with 50 or more employees, while the New York version covers companies with 10 or more workers.

As written, the measure is fairly broad–with the primary exemptions being for certain “emergencies” and on-call situations, as well as for government agencies–which could set up a barrage of questions: How will global communications involving overseas workers be addressed? Will productivity of workers who choose not to disconnect be impacted?

“There are a lot of jobs in the private sector–from teachers to nurses to private-equity CEOs–where people are using tools like email and text to help their work-life balance,” says Joyce Maroney, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos. Maroney notes many workers may leave the office early to take care of kids or parents and appreciate the flexibility to connect and catch up at night or on the weekend.

In recent research about overtime, The Workforce Institute found that 81 percent of salaried workers polled work outside their standard business hours, with nearly a third acknowledging doing so more than three times per week–16 percent say they work after hours between five and seven days a week.

According to the study, even if a company policy banned overtime working, 63 percent of those surveyed say they would continue to work off the clock.

“While the legislation is intended to help lighten the load for employees, I would hope that it would be enacted in a way that employees who want to have that flexibility to work outside whatever is considered standard working hours would still be able to have that flexibility, Maroney says.

While flexibility is often appreciated by workers, the constant connection can be detrimental–both to employees and companies, as employees who report high levels of stress have been found to be less productive, which, in turn, can impact a business’ revenue and profitability. Employers, Maroney says, with the leadership of HR professionals, can confront that conflict by creating a culture of two-way communication–where job expectations are clearly explained to employees, and workers’ needs are understood by higher-ups.

“HR leaders, working with leaders throughout the organization, can be creating a climate of trust, transparency and openness that lets such conversations happen,” she says. “It all starts with a culture that encourages constructive conversation between managers and employees such that the managers get the productivity and coverage they need and the employees get the flexibility they need.”

Whether that process will be helped or hindered by legislative updates remains to be seen–the New York City Council is expected to hold hearings on the bill this summer.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.