The Right to Disconnect

6th April 2021

Posted In: The Topic

From the start of the month (April), all employees officially have the Right to Disconnect from work and have a better work-life balance, after Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar TD brought in a new Code of Practice.

The Tánaiste has also extended an invitation to views on his plans to put the right to request remote working into law. Both are part of the Tánaiste’s commitment to create more flexible family-friendly working arrangements, including working from home and working more flexible hours. They also build on the Our Rural Future plan published recently – the government’s blueprint to transform rural Ireland – by facilitating more people to work remotely and flexibly.

On the recent announcement, the Tánaiste said: “The pandemic has transformed working practices, and many of those changes will be long-lasting. Although much of the impact of the pandemic has been negative, particularly for those who have lost jobs, income or whose businesses have been closed, it also offers an opportunity to make permanent changes for the better, whether that’s working more from home, having more time with the family, or more flexible working hours.”

Right to Disconnect

The Right to Disconnect gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours, including the right to not respond immediately to emails, telephone calls or other messages. There are three rights enshrined in the Code:

•the right of an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours

•the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours

•the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (for example: by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours)

The Tánaiste said: “It {The Code of Practice} will help employees, no matter what their job is, to strike a better work-life balance and switch off from work outside of their normal working hours.”

If problems or issues arise, employees have the right to raise the matter with the Workplace Relations Commission. The Code was developed by the Workplace Relations Commission, following a request by the Tánaiste in November 2020, underpinning the commitment made in the Programme for Government to facilitate and support remote working.

Right to Request Remote Working

The Tánaiste also invited views on his plans to put the right to ask for remote working into law: “Putting the right to request remote working into law will provide a clear framework around which requesting, approving or refusing remote work can be based. In putting this into law, we recognise that remote working doesn’t work for everyone or for every organisation, so the government will take a balanced approach with the new legislation. I encourage employers and employees alike to engage with this consultation and make their views known,” he said.

Currently in Ireland, all employees can ask their employers for the right to work remotely, but there is no legal framework around which a request can be made and how it should be dealt with by the employer. This new law will set out clearly how these requests should be facilitated as far as possible.

Not all work lends itself easily to remote working, for example where a worker needs to be physically present on site to do a task, interact with others, or use location-specific specialised machinery or equipment. In cases where remote work is suitable, a hybrid or blended model with a combination of remote work and onsite work may be the preferred arrangement. Some organisations may prefer a model where employees are required to come onsite only a few days a week or month. Some companies will need a core of ‘anchor’ people, who will be in the office or on site most days because they need to be. The new law will look at how all of these possibilities can be facilitated.

Further information on how to make a submission can be found at Public Consultation on the introduction of a Right to Request Remote Work. The closing date for submissions is Friday 7 May.

Prof Luigina Ciolfi (she/her) is Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at the School of Applied Psychology, University College Cork.

Prof Ciolfi has co-authored a book entitled “Made To Work”, about how knowledge workers manage flexible and “always on” worklives, including working from home. Written pre-pandemic, its lessons have obviously taken on greater significance with the mass migration to working from home.

Reacting to the new Code of Practice Prof Ciolfi said: “It is a very positive development, recognising the increasing expectation of “always on” availability that is often put on remote workers. While remote work has become a global phenomenon during the pandemic, this trend has been ongoing for some time, leading to significantly increased workload and negative impact on the wellbeing of remote workers and their families.

“There is a need for workers to feel that they are entitled to rest and offline time and that it is acceptable for them to disconnect. This of course might mean a change in culture for many organisations, and the need for an approach to management that is more aware of these issues.

“The mention of how exceptions might need to be made in relation to global business is welcome, as it recognises that flexibility is a trademark of certain professions and sectors. However, there it will be important to consider how flexibility is valuable for other professions too: for example, remote workers who have caring and family responsibilities – such as supporting children’s schooling – might benefit from the fact that they can work at times of day that are not considered standard working hours.

“Imposing that workers interact online at certain times and disconnect at others might curtail the benefits of flexibility.

Extensive research, for example, shows that women significantly benefit from flexible working arrangements that enable them to choose their working hours.

With this additional protection in place, employees and employers must make sure that the right to disconnect will not affect the benefits of work flexibility, but enhance them.

“This might mean developing new ways for people to communicate with colleagues and clients their working patterns, for example, and also developing digital tools that allow for greater customisation of notifications and their pausing, patterns of external communication through, for example, automated responses, pre-scheduled emails, etc., and of how one’s availability is shared with others.”

You can view a copy of the Code here>>