Once upon a time if somebody was disconnected, they were detached and withdrawn. In addition, the term might possibly have alluded to mental-health issues. But suddenly the word has a new meaning. It confers the right to switch off.

The current pandemic has seen many employees thrust suddenly and haplessly into the world of remote working. Some have thrived – others not. Many HR Managers have been forced to reappraise working conditions and performance parameters. Some employments lend themselves to the adoption of remote workers – but others do not. It’s a real mish-mash of disorder.

New guidelines from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) are looking to resolve the snafus by creating clear demarcation lines between the workplace and personal life – colloquially termed the “Right to Disconnect” in a new Code of Conduct. It is not legally enforceable, but its thrust will no doubt find its way into the workings of the Labour Court and other employment bodies. It is effectively an adjunct to existing health and safety legislation and workplace practices – and it centres on the important disciplines of the “working day”; “rest breaks” and “holidays”.

The Code does not interfere with current practices, where employees may be asked to work outside of their “normal hours”, but it does recognise and re-emphasise that such instances must be deemed rare occurrences. The real culprits in all of this are the ubiquitous e-mails and messaging texts. These can be sent when it’s convenient for the senders but can arrive on the recipients’ screen at the most inopportune times.

The Code advocates that employers should have a written policy outlining that employees are expected to be “off-line” outside of normal working hours. While off-line they are not expected to assume working mode. These expectations may represent a real step-change for some managers; and may create headaches for businesses that work across different time zones. Nevertheless, the Code is adamant that its expectations be met.

It is also recognised that employees need not only protection from wayward employers but also from themselves. Personal training is suggested as a way of communicating the message and creating awareness around the policy. The Code even hints at providing guidance on how pressing requests can be satisfactorily accommodated by way of pop-up messaging saying, “Not urgent – no need to respond”.

Modern messaging has a solution that is seldom used. Sent messages can be held in limbo and appear on the recipients’ inbox only during normal working hours. This is not a perfect resolution and can result in numerous e-mails arriving at the same time. But it’s surely not beyond the abilities of programmers to provide fixes for issues like these. Firewalls and other filters can be adapted to prioritise certain messages over others. And, of course, machine-learning models can be trained to present messages not in order of date and time, as is currently the protocol, but in terms of need and importance. The Right to Disconnect will impact all workers whether they like it or not.

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