Monday, December 27, 2021

The right to disconnect


Wireless technology has been a boon to businesses as it gives them unprecedented access to clients and workers while considerably speeding-up various functions.


That same technology has also been a bane to their workers. The ubiquitous smartphone has become a ball-and-chain, weighing them down and making them accessible to their bosses, customers, and the grind of work at all hours of the day and night and even while on vacation.

In my personal and professional dealings, I’ve witnessed far too many people frustrated, even burned out, over the unfretted access that their employers have to them. I’ve had many a meeting interrupted by someone’s phone going off. I’ve watched as my friends have had to take calls or answer emails long after they’ve left the office. This 24/7 routine can sap the enjoyment out of work -- and life.

Surveys have shown that after the close of the workday 40% to nearly 50% of white-collar workers remain connected right until the next. Other studies have shown that people can’t get away, even when they are away. More than 80% stay connected to the office while on vacation, checking in at least once a day.

It’s an epidemic and it’s not just Corporate America that is to blame. I’ve seen small businesses and non-profits exert the same amount of unnecessary pressure on their workers. No one can rest. If they do, they are blasted by supervisors or ripped by their customers. Many workers are willing participants in this mess, feeling guilty if they haven’t checked their emails or messages in the evening or on the weekend.

Why is this expected of everyone? Just because the technology exists, it doesn’t mean we should abuse it.


I have a policy at Confer Plastics, often given to needy customers, that says my coworkers are off-limits after hours, on the weekends, and on vacations. We don’t want them to take their work home with them because quality of life is contingent on a good job and it’s also contingent on a life outside of that job. Plus, a fulfilled employee, one who can maintain a free personal life, is a better employee overall. The rule at the office is that our people must follow the same standards when dealing with our customers and suppliers. We can’t bother them on their time, either.

It may seem old-fashioned or outdated to some business managers since we live in a 24-hour world. But, everyone needs to realize that constant connectedness with cellular technology is maybe 15, 20 years old. The business world did just fine before that and it will be just fine when today’s technology goes the way of the telegraph.

If we can do it with a 24/6 facility and products that are sold to and competing against companies from all over the world, other employers can do it, too. If they keenly focus on what matters most during business hours - high levels of effective customer service and the very best product quality - there is no need to harass employees after they’ve punched out for the day. Let them be people – and not just assets to your company – and you’ll find they’ll be more productive and they might even stay with you for a while.

Likewise, workers need to disconnect when not at the office. How many of you willingly, even subconsciously, glance at your aggravating smartphones and pine for simpler times? That bygone era is just one power button away. Use it. Turn off the phone at night when you are trying to relax or spend time with your children. Be you on the weekends. Make a vacation an actual vacation. Your workplace will still be there the next day and so will the work -- get it done then.


I bring all this up now because we shouldn’t have to go down the public policy path of recognizing the ability to disconnect as a worker’s right; it should be private policy. But, we’re on the way to that, as precedent was set last week north of the border, where the Ontario government a passed law that other North American governments will choose to emulate.


The Working for Workers Act requires Ontario businesses with 25 people or more to have a written policy about employees' rights when it comes to disconnecting from their job at the end of the day. These workplace policies would include expectations about response time for emails and phone calls, while encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working, all while opening the door to appropriate compensation for after-hours activities.


It’s not out of the question that New York lawmakers will follow suit in the upcoming session or the next. In recent years, the Assembly and Senate have dabbled in countless forms of worker-focused legislation from the passed (like paid family leave and paid sick leave) to the proposed (such as predictive scheduling and bereavement leave). The right to disconnect fits with that motif.


In the meantime, and without that legal pressure, if you put undue pressure on your workers, suppliers, or self, just stop. There’s a new year coming up, resolve to approach the work-life balance in new ways. Disconnect and let others do the same.    


From the 07 December 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun    

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