Andrew Pakes, Research Director and Deputy General Secretary at Prospect Union considers the Right to Disconnect.
A year into the pandemic, many of us are still glued to the kitchen table or working from the spare room. While this transition happened almost overnight in March 2020, its effects have cast a long shadow on our wellbeing and work-life balance.
Technology was already blurring the line between work and our personal lives long before we’d heard of lockdown. The always-on culture of checking emails and taking calls at home had become widespread in many companies and industries — and as the latest research shows, remote working has made drawing the line between work and home more complicated.
The experience of the last year has highlighted how technology is driving change in the ways we live and work. And it isn’t always positive. One-in-five companies are now using digital surveillance to monitor workers or planning to do so. And there are too many horror stories about organisations using automated decision making without thinking through the consequences.
The issue has become much more prominent over the last year with more of us bringing our work life into our homes. Even the World Economic Forum has been discussing the pressures our work culture and its impact on mental health and productivity. As one of our members said to me: “It’s been tough over the last year. Even though working from home has helped to keep people safe, it has made it harder to separate work, home and family commitments.”
Unions have long-called for flexible working, but that flexibility needs to work for workers, not just employers – the only way to ensure that is to do it consultation with your workforce. New rules for flexibility must enable workers to switch-off from work or the overwhelming sense people have of a New Normal will be negative.
Around the world, more countries are looking at how they get this digital balance between our private lives and work right. France became the first country to legislate on the Right to Disconnect in 2017. This law requires companies with over 50 employees to negotiate specific policies to help workers switch-off out –of hours. Argentina recently passed a law which aims to provide a “right to rest and disconnection [from work] outside of working hours”.
Ireland became the latest country to join this movement, introducing a new code of practice that came into force in April to ensure workers have a right to switch-off from work outside of their normal hours. Canada has established a joint business/union working group to assess its rules. In January, the European Parliament agreed a resolution asking the Commission to look at a Directive on the pressures to be always-on and the new realities of the digital age.
Action is also coming at company level. In 2018, Telefonica signed a European-wide agreement with unions for workers to negotiate a right to disconnect alongside pay and conditions. More recently, Australian unions have taken up the cause after staff in the Victoria Police service negotiated a right to switch-off outside of emergencies and normal hours.
The UK is falling behind on this front and Prospect has been leading calls for us to catch up. New polling commissioned by Prospect has found that two thirds of remote workers support the idea of a right to disconnect with companies required to negotiate with their staff over rules on when people could be contacted out of normal working hours.
The poll also showed the realities of lockdown, with a third of remote workers saying they found it hard to fully switch off from work, and nearly one-in-five saying they have been working at least an additional four unpaid hours per week during the pandemic.
Whatever the future workplace looks like, tech is transforming the way we are managed and work, making data the new frontline of workers’ rights. The growth of digital surveillance over the last year is another sign of how the lines are blurring between work and our private lives. We need to put proper legal frameworks around the ability of employers to monitor their employees and use their data for their own ends. This needs to be done now – it’s a lot easier to protect your freedoms than regain them once they have been lost.
We also need to see existing data regulation keep up with the speed at which digital technology is changing. Over the last year, we have been working with tech-minded MPs like Chi Onwurah, to urge the ICO to update its guidance to ensure workers’ privacy is protected. The ICO has now said that it will update guidance relating to employers. The CDEI is also taking a stronger interest in HR tech or people analytics. But we need to go further.
If we are to “Build Back Better”, then change needs to be negotiated with staff to tackle the pressures of the always-on culture, hidden overtime and digital surveillance.
The pandemic has changed many things, but we cannot allow it to define work without workers having a voice over the changes we want.
The government has promised to introduce an Employment Bill later in the year to provide greater access to flexible working. This is an excellent opportunity to update our employment rights for a new digital age, providing the scope for us all to find the off switch. It is also why we are looking for allies and partners to work with us on this endeavour.
We know that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a long time, at work as much as in any other sphere of our lives. By adopting a right to disconnect and safeguarding data rights at work we can make sure that some of the biggest risks from more remote working do not come to pass, and that workers will be able to share in some of the benefits.