The problem with the ‘right to disconnect’ from work

If leadership is, as the author Tom Smith wrote, “the ability to facilitate movement in the needed direction and have people feel good about it,” that could spell trouble for leaders in Ontario. Apparently, the province’s workers don’t feel so good about the direction in which they’ve been moving.

The reason? C-suite execs remain tone-deaf to the needs of the working class, to the wants and aspirations of average Ontarians exhausted by a pandemic that has blurred the line between work and home. And so last week, Premier Doug Ford’s government unveiled plans that would give workers the “right to disconnect.” The law that would require that executives at companies with 25 employees or more develop policies for clearly delineating work from the rest of one’s life. These policies could include  “expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working.”

The idea isn’t new. Two decades ago, France’s Supreme Court ruled  that employees were under “no obligation either to accept working at home or to bring there (their) files and working tools.” Years later, French politicians codified  that sentiment into law. The Italians followed suit, as did the Irish , the Spanish, and the Slovaks. There may be virtue in work, this kind of legislation signalled, but there’s also virtue in rest.

Ontario’s political establishment unanimously clearly agrees. The provincial Liberals said that should the Progressive Conservatives’ legislation  “produce a positive outcome for workers and their families, it deserves support.” The NDP Opposition – ever keen to tout its commitment to “friendly work standards” – has voiced similar sentiments. As for Monte McNaughton – Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development who was tasked with unveiling the effort – he called it “a bill that leaves no one behind.”

No one, that is, except actual workers.

Disconnecting from work is good. Tolling all day from sunrise to sunset may seem impressive, but it’s hardly beneficial to employers or their workers. Tending to a non-stop flurry of email, back-to-back Zoom calls, and rapid-fire text requests has been shown  to hinder – not help – productivity. And hindrances to productivity temper – rather than boost – balance sheets. Breaks offer relief by easing the body and rebooting the brain. That’s a good thing.

Yet, while there’s value in disconnecting from work, there’s also value in working. Motivated workers take pride in crafting unique products, in building brands people love, and ensuring that service post-purchase is flawless. Ticking all these boxes demands innovation, and innovation requires creativity. It warrants not just coming up with any ideas but – in an increasingly competitive global market – producing transformative ones.

The problem is that these ideas aren’t generated on command. They can’t be served up at a moment’s notice. Nor can they always be delivered between 9am and 5pm.

We have our best ideas in unexpected places, at unexpected times. Excelling in today’s economy thus demands short bursts of intensive thought followed by seemingly unproductive – yet necessary – lulls. Nourishing such approaches requires workplace flexibility, not regulatory rigidity; depriving skilled professionals of these practices by telling them exactly when and how to work also deprives them of potential opportunities to create value.

If workers believe that taking some time off during the workday helps productivity (it does), and these practices do not negatively affect others (it doesn’t, when done correctly), our laws should support that. The long-touted eight-hour workday has rightly  been faulted for failing – rather than supporting – workers, because setting hard limits on work hours can prevent workers not only from being productive when the moment best strikes an individual, but also from  “taking the breaks they need to stay healthy.”

Workers aren’t paid to toil from dawn till dusk; they’re paid to get stuff done. It would be nice if stuff got done between 9am to 5pm, but that’s seldom (if ever) the case. Our laws and our work structures should reflect this reality.

I’m not expecting our politicians to change course on the right to disconnect. Instead, I expect plenty of rhetoric about how the majority of Ontario’s legislature supports the move. But in an ideal world, to take a cue from best practices, we could just pause and reflect on what really works.

Image credit: sitthiphong

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