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While working from home has proved to be a literal lifeline for millions of workers and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, pressure is growing on employers to allow the ‘right to disconnect’.

For many, the ability to work remotely during lockdown not only kept incomes and careers alive, but also opened up a new, more balanced way of life. As the UK begins to emerge from the pandemic, many household name companies have announced plans to keep a hybrid working model of home-based and office-based days, with some doing away with the office altogether.

But there is a flipside to homeworking – some complain of pressure to be constantly available via calls and emails, outside of their contracted working hours. This has led to an inability to truly switch off from work and blurred the lines between their professional and personal lives.

The right to disconnect   

Earlier this month, the trade union Prospect called on the government to give employees a legally binding ‘right to disconnect’. The proposed legislation would ban employers from routinely calling or emailing staff outside working hours; emails could even be automatically deleted to prevent workers from checking their inboxes when off-duty. France already introduced such a law in 2017, so the UK is somewhat behind the curve here.

Having their off-hours legally protected would certainly relieve the pressure of expectation that so many workers face, without consequence for their professional reputations.

However, as with just about everything in life, there are two sides to this story. Firstly, for some businesses, the nature of their work means that being available outside the 9 to 5 is an unavoidable reality of their industry, if they wish to remain competitive.

Ironically though, we may see more pushback among some employees than their employers. Those who are very ambitious, for example, or at the start of their careers and keen to make their mark may be frustrated by the limitations of the standard working day.

An inability to work an extra hour in the evening or to get an early start when they need it could stand in the way of those wanting to get ahead. The flexibility that homeworking has offered to so many employees could end up being compromised if the law prevents them from putting in those extra hours, of their own volition.

Clearly, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, but who gets to decide where that line is?

Finding the right balance

So, where does that leave us? As ever, balance is the key, but finding that balance often comes down to the individual situation, employer and employee. Even within those unique scenarios, the calculation could change depending on the current project, staffing issues, or whether it’s the company’s busy season.

Historically, strong leadership and management skills, along with a collaborative business culture, would have been the key to addressing the work/life balance issue for a company’s workforce. If a law is passed to protect all employees’ downtime, taking a ‘case by case’ approach will no longer be possible. This will be good news for employees who are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, but could come at the cost of stunted growth and progress for some.

It will be interesting to see how this conversation develops in the business world in the coming months and where this huge, unplanned experiment in homeworking ultimately takes us.

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Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your training and development gaps, build training plans across multiple teams, or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

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Mark Fryer

17th June 2021

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