Unplugged culture: Will employers allow workers to be disconnected?

Getting unplugged from work is a luxury not everyone can afford, but in law and in deed, disconnectedness is trending upward.

If you feel like you’re never really not working, then a newly proposed bill in New York City might have captured your attention.

Introduced on March 22, the proposed “right-to-disconnect” bill comes on the heels of a similar effort implemented in France earlier this year.

At its core, New York’s right-to-disconnect bill would ban employers from requiring workers to respond to electronic communication outside of traditional work hours. If passed, the bill would impose fines on companies that violate the rule.

It’s a rather drastic measure in the larger effort to provide workers with a better work-life balance, and local HR and leadership coaching experts say it’s not only a step too far, it also faces an uphill climb to be effective in the U.S.

Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek, co-founder and chief human resources officer of Contracted Leadership, says she wasn’t shocked when France initiated its law, but she was surprised, excited, and then skeptical when New York City so quickly picked up on the right-to-disconnect concept.

“France and the European Union have been, overall, ahead of the curve on people rights laws regarding time away from work, business best practices when it comes to work wellness, and the resulting positive connection with productivity,” explains Woodman-Holoubek. France was the among the first countries in Western Europe to institute the less-than-40-hour work week, she notes, and the country has led the European Union in policy for around 20 years in regard to people wellness and rest-from-work periods. On average, the French receive 30 days of paid vacation and 14 weeks of full-pay maternity leave, according to Woodman-Holoubek.

“My enthusiasm for France changed when I learned that the right to disconnect was part of a larger labor reform that reversed the positive momentum that was building for France’s working population,” says Woodman-Holoubek.

Woodman-Holoubek’s skepticism about the New York City proposal comes from the fact that she says the U.S. has not adopted other employee wellness and best practices from Europe in terms of social benefits.

“The U.S. is not competitive with other industrialized countries in terms of taking care of its workers,” notes Woodman-Holoubek. “The U.S. is close to last in industrialized nations on provisions of parental and family paid leave, reduced-hour work week, and extended vacation and sick time. I also wonder why, and have not made a connection yet, New York is proposing that the law be applicable to companies with over 10 employees, while the French model proposes the law for companies over 50 employees. A few New Yorkers I spoke to reference that there are a large number of ‘Kickstarter businesses’ in the state, and that could be the possible reasoning behind the 10 and over requirement.”

In addition, says Woodman-Holoubek, the French law requires that businesses must “negotiate with employees and unions and agree on a policy to reduce the intrusions of employers into personal time,” but she hasn’t seen this wording being used for New York City’s proposed bill.

Also included in the New York City proposal is an exemption for government employees. “We assume that’s because government employees must be ‘on’ in case of emergency, for our security and safety,” explains Woodman-Holoubek. “However, this has brought criticism for the law — namely that if the government deems it so important for our society, then why are they exempt? Why are they not modeling the way?”

Ultimately, Woodman-Holoubek believes a right-to-disconnect law is counterintuitive to how our society is evolving. “We are relying more and more on technology for our entertainment. Are we actually unplugging at all? Technology offers us flexibility and ease of communication, allowing us more time to focus on other aspects of our interests and talents.

“The social systems of France and the EU are better primed for this labor law because of their ‘open spaces’ for bargaining,” Woodman-Holoubek adds. “Starting this in the U.S. is great in theory, but I wonder if we are not prepared with the [kind of] systems to make the law successful.”

Do workers even want it?

The right to disconnect is complex issue, notes Woodman-Holoubek. On the surface it should be basic human right to disconnect from work, she explains, but that looks different for everyone who “works.”

“For some, taking a two-hour lunch break and then returning to work leaves the perfect amount of rest to be productive; however, they work a longer day,” says Woodman-Holoubek. “For others, they skip lunch to work all the way through and leave early. For me, the inspiration to complete my work comes at different times during the day and the week.”

“[Millennial workers] don’t want ridged boundaries between work and life but do need support navigating what’s most important when, says Laura Gmeinder, founder and president of Laura Gmeinder Coaching & Consulting LLC. “We don’t come into this world knowing how to be productive. Many don’t have the knowledge or skills to fully and effectively manage their work-life balance. Most employees are stressed in the workplace and at home. Stress is an expression of fear — it comes from a mindset that there isn’t enough time and we won’t be able to get everything done. Many people don’t ask for clarification on projects or for help prioritizing work assignments, and many struggle with perfectionism – and it’s getting worse.

“We don’t want anyone to know we are having trouble balancing our workload or that we can’t figure out for ourselves what should be our top priorities,” Gmeinder continues. “What works best for one person may not work the best for others. Businesses are focusing on ways to help employees be more productive and present personally and professionally as an employee benefit. This work-life balance trend will be a competitive advantage for businesses trying to hire and retain employees. It challenges employers to offer more support to employees with their work life balance.”

Some industries and professions are more tied to being “on,” notes Gmeinder. If you’re the social media person and your company gets swept into a Twitter war at midnight, for example, there is a high sense of urgency to respond in real time. “That is the world we live in and those are the consumer expectations. If this is an expectation and shared when someone is being hired, then it’s fair. But companies are in the position to recognize and reward these employees when work cuts into their after-hours activities.”

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Woodman-Holoubek says right-to-disconnect policies assume a level of respect for periods of rest and family life for employees. Employees may allow themselves more time to disconnect if they don’t feel compelled to always be “on.” There’s evidence that less overtime for businesses means cost savings on labor expenses, health care, and absenteeism and sick leave due to stress. A 2009 Harvard Business Review study showed that more time off work can actually allow workers to get more done.

The flip side is technology allows us to work from home and spend less time and money on commuting.

“We do not know yet how this new law would affect that aspect of our work lives,” explains Woodman-Holoubek. “Do employees really want their work-from-home time regulated? Remote work has allowed businesses to save money by not having workers in the office and using utilities. In addition, we are conserving air quality and resources by not commuting.

“I think that private businesses should be left to determine their own policies,” Woodman-Holoubek continued. “Intrusion of work into personal time should be ‘fixed’ by leaders and individuals and by new best practices, not laws and rules. It is up to the leaders and managers to determine what works best for their business and culture.”

Organizations and employees are evolving in such a way that trust, purpose, and values are becoming part of the code of conduct, notes Woodman-Holoubek. For example, Volkswagen in Germany stopped email servers from sending emails to mobile phones between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. in 2011. Bosch, also a German-based organization, has 100 different ‘working hour’ models that HR and leaders developed to optimize a work-life balance.

“We are evolving to where more and more organizations and employees are working on a ‘value for talent and trust’ working relationship,” says Woodman-Holoubek. “Let businesses work it out for themselves and organically those organizations that do not value balance and rest periods will become dinosaurs.”

How to disconnect effectively

Unplugging is essential for employee wellbeing, notes Gmeinder. It starts from the top down. How does the leadership model boundaries? What resources and support are they providing to employees?

“Employers benefit by having a more productive workforce,” Gmeinder says. “When we are always on our devices we don’t take enough time to process situations and emotions. One often-overlooked leadership skill is developing our intuition. When we are always on we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to listen to our inner wisdom.”

Here are a few ways Gmeinder recommends to create a better work-life balance:

  • Be clear in email when a response is needed by. If you are out of the office, put on your out-of-office message. Manage expectations by letting people know when they can expect a reply and make sure to provide one in that timeframe.
  • Take a walk. Breaks are scientifically proven to make us more productive.
  • Everything can be important but not everything is urgent. Focus on what’s important versus urgent and make a plan to get the urgent items completed on time.
  • A popular idea to unplug is “No-Tech Sunday.” Turn off your cellphone, and turn on life. It’s a movement catching on to help us be more present in the moment and give us the time and space to recharge for the new week ahead. Can’t go cold turkey? Consider muting the text string from your co-workers so you aren’t getting constant alerts.
  • Design a tech agreement with your team. What should be sent by email? When is it okay to text? What time is the cut off for a reply for both?
  • Turn your phone off or delete your work app when you take a vacation. Some companies have gone so far as to authorize employees to have a vacation out of office auto responder that any incoming email will be deleted, and if it’s important to resend after the person returns from vacation.
  • Adjust your calendar from 60- to 30-minute meetings to take back some time. Decline meetings if they aren’t essential.
  • Check email at certain times and set expectations for those emailing you by including a note on your signature line or out of office response. This allows you to give all of your attention to the meeting or project at hand. Multitasking significantly minimizes your productivity.
  • Spring clean your inbox. Take time to unsubscribe from emails you’re constantly deleting every day, and get rid of old emails, especially large files that risk your email shutting down at the most inconvenient time.
  • Volunteer. Turn your phones off and spend the afternoon volunteering with your team to bond and unplug.

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