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The Right to Disconnect

Is office life back to normal? Will it ever be? We have learned over the last year is that “normal” is an extremely flexible word that feels like an increasingly imaginary concept. The pandemic has normalised certain trends, and in the business world, the rise of the home office has been perhaps the most-discussed change to the employment landscape. Countless reports have examined employee attitudes towards the home office, and many no longer see physical flexibility as a benefit of elite, white-collar jobs, but one that is a basic requirement. With that normalisation comes the need to monitor and manage people who work from the home office. A lot of flexibility was given to managers as they attempted to modify KPIs and adapt to a temporary situation, but seeing as how that temporariness has yielded to permanence, there is an increasing need for people to step in firmly manage, or, as The Economist puts it, to “police remote work”.

As the respected magazine points out, some governments are attempting to settle the issue at a national level in the form of employee protections. The aim is to preserve the positive aspects of home office work without allowing the murkier side to balloon. Portugal’s labour minister has announced legislation to ban bosses from calling their employees “after hours”, and those who contact their employees outside of agreed-upon hours face fines of more than 9,000 EUR. Moreover, given how employers are now seeing significant savings on office infrastructure, Portugal will require them to provide similar infrastructure at home. Employers will need to provide home office equipment and reimburse employees for their electricity and internet costs. Perhaps counterintuitively, the legislation also obligates employers to hold in-person meetings twice a month to combat social isolation. So, even though many employees enjoy never having to commute for work anymore, they, too, will have some obligations.

As The Economist points out, these laws are all well and good in theory, but they do not align with practical incentives. Most ambitious people want to appear ambitious, and part of that appearance includes being reachable after 5 PM. An employee who wants to get ahead and earn a promotion has little to gain from reporting their employer so that they get fined. That is why the campaign across Europe for the “right to disconnect”, which had been gaining steam even before the pandemic, remains unfulfilled. Since 2017, workers in France and Italy have been able to ignore texts, emails, and calls from their employers outside of working hours. Just because they have the right to ignore without repercussion does not mean they will see full protections; long-term repercussions have always been much more insidious. That is why very few cases have arisen from France’s right to disconnect laws.

Remote work is the Wild West of the post-COVID employment landscape. The land had always been there, partially settled, but the forces have caused people to rush there in droves. And if history taught us anything, policing the Wild West was never an easy task.