A deep dive into the future of work

• Published March 18, 2024

In the ever-elusive quest for work-life balance for workers, some countries are legislating slamming that laptop shut for the weekend. 

Increasingly more nations, including France, Argentina, Ireland and recently Australia, have passed what are known as “right to disconnect” laws, giving workers the legal right not to respond to that email after hours — and not face negative repercussions. 

It’s a shift that’s come on the heels of advancing technology that allows employees to be connected around the clock — and workers’ reprioritization of their personal lives accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In some cases, like in Chile and Mexico, the laws only apply to remote workers, but in others, they are universal. 

“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s nice to be able to work and not be at your desk, but then people can always reach you,” Tom Spiggle, an employment lawyer and owner of The Spiggle Law Firm, told HR Dive. 

While a few states and at least one city — including Washington, California and New York City — have considered the right to disconnect, the U.S. doesn’t have any such legislation on the books, Spiggle said. 

“It’s interesting [these laws] haven’t passed in some of these states that are worker-friendly,” Spiggle said. “There isn’t the political will. … If I’m a betting man, these don’t pass, but I could be surprised.” 

That doesn’t mean U.S. workers are completely without protections when it comes to their time. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that nonexempt, hourly workers be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours, and the Family and Medical Leave Act prevents employers from contacting workers, for the most part, while they’re on leave. 

A cultural shift

A right to disconnect movement in the U.S. likely will be led by individual organizations, followed by states, Alan King, president and CEO of Workplace Options, a global employee well-being company, told HR Dive. The American system of government, with its confluence of state and federal law, makes it more difficult to pass legislation like this than in other countries, King said. 

“We have so much changed into a society that never shuts off; we’re always connected. I think some form of rules that help structure that is a good thing. I say that, in part, because these are rights to disconnect; they are not forced disconnections. They put the onus on the employer and the individual,” King said. 

Workplace Options has employees in every time zone and, as such, is held to right to disconnect laws around the world. But, instead of changing its policies only in those countries, the company is undergoing an overall cultural shift, King said.

“Ultimately, you have a law that is about the culture of an organization. If an employee feels like they’re going to be penalized for not doing something, that’s about that company’s culture,” King said. 

In response, King’s company is changing its approach to meetings. Whereas before, calls were scheduled at times that were favorable to the majority of employees, they are now slotted for windows where everyone is “equally advantaged or disadvantaged,” King said. And the company is reducing its reliance on meetings. 

“We have way the hell more meetings than we need to. Way more things could be an email or an asynchronous chat that delivers on time,” King said. “When we do have to have those conversations together, we do it at a time that’s as convenient for everyone as possible, Or, if it’s inconvenient, we share the burden of time. … It’s not always on the onus of the employees in a different time zone to bend to you.” 

That means having open communication with workers to figure out solutions together, he explained. Ultimately, it’s about adhering to the spirit of the law and asking employees’ boundaries and for their permission to work in certain situations. 

“This is about how people engage with each other and how you engage with them,” King said. 

Anthony Horton, CEO of Corporate Relocation International, a relocation management company, said the issue “really boils down to setting boundaries in our perpetually connected world.”

“I question whether it is a thing that needs to be legislated since, really, it is us, as leaders of corporations, who need to be listening to the evolving needs of employees and ensuring we understand the impacts” of technology, different work arrangements and evolving standards for employee well-being, Horton told HR Dive via email. “I think responsible companies will do this on their own.” 

Ultimately, leaders who make sure employees feel they have the right to disconnect and that their well-being is prioritized will see a positive impact both on their workers and on their business, Laura Lomelí, a principal executive advisory consultant at BetterUp, a coaching and human transformation company, told HR Dive via email. 

But, she cautions to ensure that right to disconnect policies be tailored to a company or an industry. 

“The underlying premise and motive of the policy should be embraced. Yet, a policy like this should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all and instead should be customized to the industry and company culture,” Lomelí said.

Article top image credit: Hiraman via Getty Images