I’m a boss – please ban me from out-of-hours emails and calls, and save me from myself | André Spice…

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I have a secret that I need to own up to: sometimes I’m a bad boss. After spending a couple of decades studying management and leadership, during the last couple of years I have been leading a large business school in London. When I took on the role, I wanted to try to bring an evidence-based approach to my leadership position, and initially I used the relevant science to guide my actions. Over time, however, I found myself falling into bad habits that I knew were a no-no, according to the research.

One of these was contacting my co-workers out of working hours. I knew there was plenty of research that finds that out-of-work-hours communication is generally bad for employee wellbeing, and can also be bad for productivity. However, this didn’t stop me. Some mornings, I would find myself sending colleagues emails at 5am. In the evening, I would be messaging at 10pm. During the weekends, I would find myself firing off documents to colleagues and asking for comments.

As with any bad habit, I tried to stop myself doing it. I limited my out-of-hours communication. I tried not to check in during holidays. I learned about technical solutions to schedule my emails so they would arrive during office hours. Despite all this, I still wasn’t entirely successful. And I know that I am not alone. Many people find it difficult to stop themselves making work-related communications outside working hours.

Now the law is stepping in, whether weak-willed managers like me like it or not. In 2017, France implemented a law that required larger employers to put in place “mechanisms for regulating the use of digital tools, with a view to ensuring respect for rest periods and leave as well as personal and family life”. The French law was followed by similar right-to-disconnect laws in Italy, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Portugal and the Canadian province of Ontario, and the Labour party in the UK is proposing a “right to switch off”. Now the Australian federal government has passed its own “right to disconnect” legislation. This makes it illegal to require employees to respond to communication or join work calls out of reasonable working hours. If there are persistent violations and they are not resolved at the workplace level, then an employee has the right to raise it with the Fair Work Commission. The commission can then hand down a fine of up to A$18,000 (£9,300).

These kinds of laws have received inevitable pushback. Len Shackleton from the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank, pointed out that right-to-disconnect rules will remove a degree of flexibility required in fast-changing workplaces. Others have said the legislation does not go far enough. Opeyemi Akanbi of Toronto Metropolitan University pointed out that rules are unlikely to be properly implemented by employers, and they don’t address underlying problems such as the difficulty of disconnecting in highly fluid forms of knowledge work.

While both these criticisms may be true, the evidence of the impact of right-to-disconnect laws in Europe seems to be relatively positive. A recent large-scale study found that eight out of 10 workers in companies received work-related communication out of working hours. What’s more surprising is that there did not seem to be any difference for companies that were covered by right-to-disconnect legislation and those not. However, the laws did seem to make employees feel more in control of their work. This meant that people in companies covered by right-to-disconnect legislation tended to have higher job satisfaction, report better work-life balance and were less likely to suffer health issues such as headaches, stress and anxiety. Employees also seemed to like the new laws: 70% of workers in companies covered by the legislation said they had a positive impact.

However, simply implementing laws is not enough. To make a difference they need to be accompanied by other measures such as education, effective means to limit out-of-hours communications (such as systems that stop emails being exchanged out of hours), and an appropriate match between workloads and working time.

While right-to-disconnect legislation seems to be good for workers, there is still the question of whether it also might be good for bosses. Although there has not been a systematic study of the question yet, my guess is that the answer would be a qualified yes. First, we know that workers tend to be more productive over a longer period of time when they have better work-life balance and boundaries. Second, recent work by Stanford University’s Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao has found that managers would be much more effective if they were able to reduce the needless clutter, such as empty communication and pointless meetings, that blights their own lives.

Clear boundaries might be tough for managers like me to get their heads around. But perhaps a right to disconnect would force us to ensure our contracted work day was spent doing things that really matter.

  • André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London. He is the author of the book Business Bullshit

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