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As Right-to-Disconnect Laws Hit Europe, Will U.S. Follow Suit?

Over the last five years, there’s been an increasing focus on laws centered around digital protections and worker’s rights, specifically the “right to disconnect.”

Over the last five years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of laws centered around digital protections. Anyone who’s worked online in some capacity during this timeframe is likely familiar with the biggest digital law to become enacted: the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR

And while GDPR was about digital protections (and privacy of customer/consumer data), the focus has now shifted more toward worker’s rights, specifically the “right to disconnect.” That is, the right of a worker to be inaccessible to their employers outside of work hours, promoting a healthier work-life balance. 

It’s notable that the vast majority of such laws – and the movements around them – have originated in Europe. And it makes sense why. European culture has a strong proclivity for extended holidays – often taking off the entire month of August. This is quite literally a foreign concept to most workers in the United States. 

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the swift rise of remote work, the tides are changing in the way Americans view and respect their own work life boundaries. This begs the question as to what the U.S. workforce might look like if it were to take a page out of the EU’s playbook.  Let’s dig deeper into the laws already established in the EU. 

Modern Legal Precedents for Digital Protections 

The vast majority of laws centered around digital protections got their start in Europe. The current focus of digital protections is the right-to-disconnect, which means an employer would no longer be able to contact an employee outside of work hours nor expect a reply to emails, texts, or Slack messages. 

France’s “right to disconnect” law was enacted in 2017 and “refers to employers’ obligation to stop encroaching on their employees’ personal and family lives with calls and emails.”

But France isn’t alone in their efforts. Portugal recently passed a law that imposes fines on companies for contacting employees outside of work hours or monitoring them while they work at home. Companies must also now cover the expenses incurred by their employees while working remotely including bills for electricity and the internet. Additionally, measures to tackle loneliness and mental health were addressed, with companies expected to organize in-person meetings at least every two months. 

And still another example comes from Belgium. Federal employees in Belgium no longer have to answer emails or take phone calls outside of work hours as of February 2022, with plans for the law to extend to the private sector. There’s even an EU-wide law in consideration for the "right to disconnect."

There aren't any laws currently planned in the United States regarding the right to disconnect. Though there has been a rise in recent years of unionization efforts and other worker’s rights movements, largely driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the dramatic increase in remote workers. 

In light of these shifting priorities, some are calling for the U.S. to follow the EU’s lead. And it may very well be time for organizations to consider setting boundaries regarding employee time off and respecting work hours, if not for protecting worker’s rights, then at the very least for employee longevity and talent retention. 

But whose responsibility is it to establish and enforce those boundaries?  Perhaps it’s a shared responsibility between the employer, employee, and people managers.

What Organizations Can Do Promote a Right-to-Disconnect

Though no laws are on the books in the U.S. that ensure an employee’s right to establish a healthy work-home separation, more organizations and companies are recognizing the need to set boundaries for their employees, especially due to the tight labor market.  At the organizational level, company owners and operators may wish to consider the following: 

  • Establish a set of internal policies that create a culture of respecting employee “off” time. 
  • Coordinate with employees to see what their preferred work hours are (remote working can sometimes make this tricky) to create a company-wide contact schedule. 
  • Don’t make contact with employees during vacations and scheduled, pre-approved time-off.
  • Model the established internal policies at the highest levels of the organization. 

Through the implementation of such practices, organizations have the power to set the tone for a healthy virtual workplace. And showing employees this level of respect may directly relate to the retention of talent over the long-term. 

Managers and Employees Share in Responsibility 

Though the majority of “setting the tone” for the right-to-disconnect is on organizations to implement, managers and employees share in this responsibility. That is, it is often in the hands of managers and employees to maintain and uphold the organization’s policies. 

At this level, the right-to-disconnect can be codified by: 

  • Not sending emails, Slack or text messages during non-working hours. Instead, you can schedule them to go out at the start of business the next day. Or, at the very least, managers can make it abundantly clear that a response is not expected outside of the employee’s established work hours. 
  • Similarly, employees or remote teams should hold up the organization’s stated policies by not responding outside of their established hours as well. Often, employees feel pressure to respond immediately if a manager texts outside of work hours, so sticking to the stated policies is especially important to avoid unnecessary stress. 

It's a collaborative effort to establish, follow, and enforce these informal policies. Managers, especially, would need to model the behavior the organization wishes to see. But employees should model healthy boundaries as well, even if it’s as simple as setting a notification schedule in Slack or reminding their colleagues of their flexible work arrangements, if they exist. 

Though the future of potential right-to-disconnect laws in the United States are unclear, what is certain is that a tidal wave of new remote workers during the pandemic era has fostered a need to consider the merits of digital protections. And if companies wish to attract and retain the best talent going forward, establishing a culture of healthy work boundaries may be something to put into practice.

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