By Cait Etherington April 01, 2018
Last week, New York City Councilor Rafael Espinal proposed a law that would make it illegal for employers to expect employees to log-on to their work email accounts outside official work hours. If Espinal’s The Right to Disconnect bill passes, New York City will become the first North American jurisdiction but not the first jurisdiction worldwide to put the kibosh on after-hours work-related communications. Notably, similar legislation has been in place in France since late 2016.
Whether you’re a teacher logging on at 11:00 pm on Friday night to respond to an angry parent complaining about their second grader’s B- on a math test or a CEO logging on at 4:00 am to respond to an overseas client’s request for documents, you’re working outside regular office hours and probably compromising your wellbeing to do so. This is Councilor Espinal’s argument. As Espinal told The New York Times in an interview last week, “So many of us are glued to our smartphones and our computers, it’s important to understand that we don’t have to feel as if our work has to spill into our personal lives.”
However, Espinal’s proposal comes on the crest of a recent wave of attempts to put an end to workplace communications after hours and notably, politicians are not the only people riding this wave. Back in 2011, Volkswagen decided to stop forwarding emails to company mobile phones after 6:00 p.m. and before 7:00 a.m. Soon, other German companies, including Allianz and Daimler followed, with the latter even deleting any emails sent out while someone is officially on vacation. Since the German corporate crackdown on after-hours emails, France has gone a step further. Its own version of the “The Right to Disconnect” took effect in late 2016. As Benoit Hammon, a member of the French Parliament, told BBC News at the time: “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
Anyone who has ever participated in an online workplace training course knows that these courses are nearly always delivered online and usually begin with an “invite” delivered to your work email. Moreover, whether explicitly stated or not, there is a general expectation that the course will be completed on one’s own time rather than during regular working hours. In theory, these courses are an ideal way to deliver key training modules to a large number of employees without losing precious work hours. After all, with online learning, there is no need to take key personnel away from their desks to attend on-site workshops. In terms of cost savings, however, organizations also gain by eliminating the cost they would have once spent on space, facilitators, printing, and even refreshments. While a relatively good deal for employers, for employees, online training often comes at a cost. Most notably, much of the training once done on work time is now carried out online and often on one’s own time.
As “The Right to Disconnect” debate continues to escalate in North America, the issue of online training hangs in the air. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the time that employees spend in meetings, lectures, or training must be considered hours worked and compensated unless attendance is outside regular working hours; attendance is voluntary; the course, lecture, or meeting is not job related; and the employee does not perform any productive work during attendance. While this may sound straight-forward, there are several ambiguities, including what counts as “regular working hours” and “job-related.”
While only time will tell whether “The Right to Disconnect” gains traction in North America as it already has in Europe, what is clear is that if the legislation does make headway, organizations should expect at least some kickback from employees about the growing demand to complete training courses online and outside of regular work hours. Indeed, it seems likely that if the legislation does come into effect, employers may find themselves either reverting back to offering on-site training courses during regular working hours or find themselves compensating employees for any time spent completing online courses outside regular work hours.