There were times when stepping outside the office after the 9-hour shift naturally meant that there is no more work to do or discuss for the rest of the day. Nobody then argued about that; nobody chased you over the landline; nobody interrupted your family dinner. Fast forward to our current times: some employers could go as far as popping up in your dreams and wake you up to answer this or that in the middle of the night.
Employers’ expectations and demands are crossing the limits of the reasonable, with anxiety, stress, and burnout running rife. In the recent years, the employer-employee discord over the latter’s right to break free from work in the after-hours has pushed some countries like France to issue a law granting employees the right to ignore work emails in the non-work hours. Yes! It was only natural to stop working once the workday ended, but now that sensible action requires a law! More countries have followed suite, with the “right to disconnect” policies spreading from France to Spain, Italy, Canada, and all the way to India.
Even if such laws are not pronounced where we are, we can work together to rearrange the work-life equation. Arriving at a balance calls for collaborative efforts and understanding from both the employer and the employee. Each party has a role to play if we are to taste work-life harmony in an always-on technology-addicted world.
Your Employer Is Going Home: the Right to Disconnect
Entrepreneurs overseeing startups and small businesses are highly likely to contact their teams at all hours. After all, it feels like a closely-knit family where everyone’s role counts. However, we need to go back to the basics. Once the work hours are over, at the office or virtually, these employees are not yours. They are all for themselves, and so is their time. This means you do not have the right to text, call, or email your employees to work on a project or address a work issue during their own time. Practically speaking, though, at certain moments it will be necessary for you and your business to contact an employee in the after-hours. What shall you do then? In advance, you shall discuss with your team how far they are willing to engage in work matters beyond the hours. Also find out their preferences: will they allow a phone call, a text message, a video call? Are there certain hours or days that are a complete no-no? Of course you yourself have to be reasonable and make no late-night calls or send midnight texts.
Once you have laid the foundations, evaluate the need case by case. Is it definitely urgent or can it wait until tomorrow? How much will you ask from your employee? Will they have to take an action, perform a task, or simply give an opinion? Because they might not be available in the end. Now in case they reply and they take the time to help, show appreciation, and not only morally. Consider paying an overtime where appropriate.
What if your employee does not reply at all? Well, here is where you have to remember the “right to disconnect” laws. You cannot penalize them for it. Regardless of the size of your business, a 24/7 availability is not commitment; it is enslavement.
Your 9-hour Shift Is Over: Learn to Disconnect
Now you are the employee, not the employer. It is time to leave the office. What does this mean? It means that you should disconnect from work and tune in to your personal life. If you act lamely on that front, you will be opening the door to intrusion and making it the norm. Later when the need arises and it is urgent for you to untether from work, this granted right to intrude will be difficult to reverse and will be met with resentment. Make “downtime” a rule that you stick to. Working beyond the hours and being available around the clock is detrimental to your health and productivity. It will hastening your burnout.
It is imperative here to inform your coworkers and your managers about your rules to adjust their expectations. It is your right to say that you will not receive any calls after work or to limit the medium through which they can contact you—perhaps you may allow calls for emergencies but not texts, or texts but not chats. Define your rules and share them.
Now what do we mean when we say “disconnect”? To disconnect is to stop checking business emails and texts. It is to relieve your mind from thinking about work.
How can you disconnect? If you turn your mobile off, you will be cutting yourself off from everyone, not taking a break. What then to do? You can mute your business phone number, for a start. You can log off from any work accounts. You block your work apps. A more effective step would be choosing a messaging app that creates work-life harmony by allowing you to set separate profiles for work and personal life and to arrange your contacts accordingly, empowering you to choose when to mute and when to activate your profiles.
Disconnecting, but with Considerations
Whether you are a manager contacting one of your employees or an employee texting your coworkers, whether you are on the sender’s or the recipient’s end, there are considerations to make when you communicate outside the work hours. Productivity expert Suzanna Kaye explains that if you send a text message, then you can wait for 12 hours before you get the reply. If it is a real emergency, make a phone call. She also tells employees that they have to reply to text messages, even if to say that they cannot take an action or respond properly now, and that again has to be within 12 hours.
While we may have covered the basic steps, something transcends the rules, rights, and laws: ethics. The laws evolve; they are country-bound; we may apply them, modify them, or defy them. Ethics, however, are steadfast and universal. We refer to the laws in disagreement; but ethics build bridges of trust. If we observe the ethics that cement positive relationships on grounds of understanding, tolerance, and empathy, we will naturally feel the right and the wrong, and tell that which helps from that which harms in our business communications. Ethics can guide us to when, how, and why to contact coworkers and subordinates outside the business hours; it will similarly teach us when, how, and why to respond and when to switch off. With good will in place, ethics can be the compass that directs our communications. Build your culture around ethics; you have walked a whole mile towards work-life harmony and considerate business communications.
The world is changing, but ethics are not. Stay safe and ethical, online and offline.