The workplace has never been more flexible. Today’s teams often work asynchronously and with members distributed across physical spaces, international borders, and even multiple time zones. But with great workplace flexibility comes great employer responsibility. When organizational leaders choose to communicate with their team members outside of working hours and on days off – and normalize a workplace culture that does not respect boundaries around employees’ personal time – they may create an environment where workers feel like they’re always on-call – or worse, where they really are. 

The right to disconnect

The US Surgeon General is prioritizing workplace wellbeing – and it’s about time everyone else did, too

California lawmakers have taken this conundrum to heart, proposing a bill that would give workers the “right to disconnect” from their jobs when they’re not on the clock. While Spain, Portugal, and Argentina are among 13 countries around the world that already have similar laws on the books, this legislation would be the first of its kind in the U.S. If it passes, California workers will be free to ignore messages from their bosses and colleagues during their off-hours, excepting some emergency situations. The law would also require employers to formalize employees’ non-working hours in writing, allowing workers whose bosses routinely demand off-hours communications to file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner, which would be a finable offense. 

Amid all-time high levels of job stress and burnout across the global workforce, the move seems like a step in the right direction. It also presents an opportunity for employers everywhere to carefully assess how their organizations’ workplace communication protocols stack up and, if needed, give their organizational culture a makeover. 

The pros and cons of right-to-disconnect laws

6 ways to bounce back from burnout

When it comes to worker wellbeing, the potential benefits of the California bill are clear. Research shows that chronic stress and overwork contribute to increased burnout, absenteeism, and reduced efficiency. Establishing guidelines that protect workers’ personal time helps combat toxic workplace expectations and supports employees’ physical and mental health. 

Derek Bruce, HR and Operations Director at First Aid at Work Course in Dunfermline, Scotland, has seen firsthand how concrete steps to ensure employees’ work-life balance can promote a happier and healthier workforce.

“We trialed a scheme in our organization whereby employees were requested to turn off work notifications after hours,” Bruce says. “The results? A reduction of 10 percent in employees’ sick leave taken per month, and an observable increase in employee morale.”

Right-to-disconnect laws stand to benefit employers in addition to their teams, says Bryan Driscoll, a legal writer and HR consultant in Orlando, Florida who advocates for employee rights. “This respect for work-life balance can translate into increased productivity during working hours, as employees feel more rested and valued,” Driscoll explains, adding that organizational culture is poised to improve on the whole as workers become more engaged and less prone to overwork. 

Given the asynchronous nature of the modern workplace, the proposed California legislation does raise some potential challenges. Dr. Kyle Elliott, a Santa Barbara, California-based career coach and workplace mental health expert whose clients include numerous tech-industry executives, says that despite some major upsides, right-to-disconnect legislation could threaten to put a damper on worker flexibility. Specifically, some employers might establish policies that follow the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law, emphasizing rigid hours of operation instead of respecting boundaries around employees’ non-working time. 

“Currently, many employees, particularly in the tech industry, enjoy the luxury of being able to log off of work to run personal errands, and then make up their hours in the evening at a time that is convenient for them,” Elliott says. “However, what will happen to employee flexibility if this new bill is introduced?”

Then there are the logistical challenges of writing policies to accommodate new company-wide standards that may apply to team members across multiple jurisdictions. “I think that there are many compliance challenges that are associated with this type of legislation, as employers would have to create a system to monitor and enforce this,” says Topsie VandenBosch, a workplace well-being consultant and licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles.

Best practices for leaders

How to excel at asynchronous communication with your distributed team

Regardless of legislative efforts in California or elsewhere, it’s incumbent on organizational leaders to establish workplace norms that respect the personal lives, and personal time, of their team members. Experts offer a few specific guidelines that can help keep leaders and employees on the same page:

  • Create explicit protocols for emergency off-hours communication. “Communicate what after-hours availability is expected in different roles and projects,” says Bruce. “Give precedence to asynchronous communication tools for non-emergency matters, and, as a manager, set the tone by respecting your employees’ off-hours and don’t send emails late at night unless it’s an emergency.” 
  • Prioritize results over rapid response. Leaders who overvalue immediate employee response times and the ability to demand drop-of-the-hat pivots don’t necessarily get the best results, let alone encourage a positive workplace culture. “Fostering a culture that values results over presence discourages unnecessary after-hours communication, focusing on efficiency and output rather than hours logged,” Driscoll explains.
  • Practice what you preach. “Those in leadership need to refrain from communicating unnecessarily or responding during their time off,” VandenBosch says. “Modeling this behavior trickles down to employees, cultivating a culture where employees will follow their lead and feel empowered to enhance their work-life balance, too.”

The pros and cons of right-to-disconnect legislation