‘Right to Disconnect’ and Remote Working Arrangements: What Employers Should Know

COVID-19 has shattered workplace norms about how traditional work is carried out, by ushering in a new and unprecedented ‘work-from-home’ culture (WFH). Technology has also facilitated the extension of work, connecting employers and employees virtually at all hours of the day. Consequently, remote working arrangements and technology advances have blurred the lines between worker’s professional and private lives, calling into question what is and is not considered ‘work’ for individuals still working from home in the wake of COVID-19.

The issues surrounding remote work have developed significant debate, namely that with relation to workers’ right to ‘disconnect’ once the work-day is over. Some of Australia’s largest unions have pushed for more Australian workers to have a ‘right to disconnect’ from phone calls, texts, and emails outside of work hours, arguing that this combats against overwork and can improve the mental well-being of employees.

The right to disconnect has been achieved by Victorian police employees in previous workplace negotiations relating to their latest enterprise agreement (the Agreement). Clause 59 of the Agreement relieves employees of a duty to be contactable outside of working hours, except during emergencies or genuine welfare matters.

Union leaders have stated that such a right will protect officers against the ‘availability creep’ or being contacted outside of work with respect to matters that can be dealt with during an employee’s next shift. This shifts the burden from the employee to remain accessible, to the employer to consider whether a phone call/email sent outside effective working hours is conducive.

During COVID-19, the education sector face exploding workloads, leading to the renegotiation of agreements to account for a right to disconnect. The pandemic forced Australian families and students into home-schooling, meaning that the working hours of teachers reached an all-time high, alongside parents’ expectations about being able to contact staff.

Around the world, nations have responded to overwork issues arising from remote work. In 2016, France introduced workplace laws identifying the right to disconnect and Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission has developed a code of practice reflecting the same, namely the National Strategy on Remote Working which provides guidance for employees and employers navigating disengagement outside normal working hours. Current trends of legislating and identifying the right to disconnect beckons the need for Australian employers to respond proactively.

What does this mean for employers?

The ‘right to disconnect’ calls for the redefinition of ‘working hours’, particularly since that remote work, in many workplaces, is here to stay. This will require employers to collaborate with employees and their representatives, to develop rules to regulate remote work to better distinguish the line between an employee’s working life and personal life and give an identifiable face to ‘working hours’ and what this looks like.

“Without clear boundaries separating work and the rest of your life, working people can be both expected to work extra unpaid hours and be subject to a job that is at high risk of mental health problems,” Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus has stated.

Mounting pressure from unions may result in the incorporation of the ‘right to disconnect’ in enterprise agreements across a variety of sectors. Employers can benefit from strategies to deal with on-coming, potential agreement changes by considering the creation of a Remote Working policy, so that expectations about ‘working hours’ are clearly defined.

If you require assistance with the creation of practices, guidelines, or policies explaining remote work, please do not hesitate to contact Nick Stevens, Luke Maroney, or Daphne Klianis.

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