Why ‘right to disconnect’ policies are not the answer to work-life balance

Recently, Australia made headlines with the introduction of new legislation granting employees the 'right to disconnect’ from employers after work hours. This echoes similar initiatives seen across Europe.

28th Mar 2024

Although this is an attempt to reinstate a healthier work-life balance, it’s not the solution we’re looking for. The legislation not only undermines the autonomy and flexibility that employees want, but is also a step in the wrong direction towards creating more inclusive workplaces.

In this blog we will look at: 

  • What is a ‘right to disconnect’ policy?
  • The pros and cons of a ‘right to disconnect’ policy
  • 3 reasons why ‘right to disconnect’ rules are not the answer to work-life balance
  • How flexible working can create a more autonomous and inclusive workplace

What is a ‘right to disconnect’ policy?

A ‘right to disconnect’ policy means that employees have the right to refuse to monitor, read or respond to contact (or attempted contact) from an employer or a third party outside of their ordinary working hours. 

The Australian ‘right to disconnect’ legislation, outlined in new provisions in the Fair Work Act 2009, includes the following rules: 

  • Workers cannot be penalised for failing to respond to unreasonable phone calls, emails, texts or other messages from employers outside of work hours.
  • Employers could be penalised for breaching such orders, or for punishing workers who do not answer out of hours.
  • If workers are contacted too frequently, the Fair Work Commission could bar their employer from out-of-hours contact not essential to the job.

Australia's 'right to disconnect' policy isn't new to the world of work. Many countries around the world already have regulations in place regarding how and when we work. Here are some of them👇


The pros and cons of a ‘right to disconnect’ policy

Some may argue that having clear rules in place is essential, particularly in environments where work-life balance is lacking and culture doesn't support it. Having laws and policies to disconnect can stop work from spilling into personal lives, letting employees truly unplug from work. However, is the right to ignore policy suitable for everyone? Here, we explore two opposing views, each of which presents valid points in the debate.

Richard Odufisan, co-host of the Tales From The Plantation Podcast & former DEI Lead at Wayve explains his take on the legislation:

“I actually think that the Right to Ignore is a positive step that empowers employees to make the choice on when to engage in work-related conversations, without feeling the guilt. Having worked in environments where there was a culture of “just a quick one…” requests, I think this (and especially the fear of fines) could actually encourage clearer communication of each person’s working hours. It does require greater accountability on everybody to be honest and actually work during the hours agreed, but the flip side is that it gives people autonomy over their time and should encourage a culture of trust and respect.”

Joe O'Connor, CEO and co-founder of Work Time Reduction shares his thoughts on why the policy may not be the right move. 

“Right to ignore' or 'Right to disconnect' policies are well-intentioned, but are likely to be ineffective in isolation by falling into the trap of tackling the cause without addressing the symptoms. What really moves the needle on workload issues is a work culture free from unnecessary distractions, unreasonable expectations for non-urgent work, and a lack of clear boundaries. Future-ready workplaces ensure flexibility that enables people to focus at work and flourish outside of work, and recognise that employee productivity and wellbeing are complementary rather than competing forces.”

3 reasons why ‘right to disconnect’ rules are not the answer to work-life balance 

Molly, our CEO and co-founder is a prime example of why the right to ignore policy doesn't work for everyone. Here, she explains how these rules would impact the ways she works.

“As both a company founder and someone managing an autoimmune disease, I have experienced firsthand the positive impact of being able to work where, when, and how I want. It’s also why Flexa exists in the first place. To give people the choice to work in a way that best suits them (not to mention the benefits of flexible working for businesses too). Having rules in place to disconnect from my team would be detrimental to my business and my work-life balance and wellbeing. And I’m not alone. A staggering 83.2% of Australian workers consider flexibility in terms of working hours to be important, and 40% of global workers say they would leave their jobs if they did not have flexibility and autonomy over their work arrangements.”

Molly’s story is one of many reasons why ‘right to disconnect’ rules are not the answer to work-life balance. The truth of the matter is that we all have different needs. This means we need the flexibility and trust from employers to allow us to work when and how we want. This not only helps create more inclusive workplaces but more productive ones too. Let's look at why…

⚖️ Work-life balance is not a one size fits all

What exactly do we mean when we talk about 'work-life balance'? It's a concept that varies from person to person. What one person considers balanced might not match someone else's preferences or priorities. Most people are more productive working during ‘core hours’, for others it's not the case, and for some they simply don’t have the choice.  What truly matters is the work accomplished during those hours. Recognising that work-life balance is subjective emphasises the importance of offering flexibility and supporting each employee's unique needs.

🚧 Enforced ways of working are not inclusive 

According to Australia's Fair Work Ombudsman, both full-time and part-time employees meeting specific criteria, including employment of at least 12 months with the same employer, are eligible to request flexible work arrangements. These criteria cover different situations such as being a parent, having a disability, being over 55, expecting a baby, experiencing family and domestic violence, or giving care support. While approval of such requests is beneficial, what happens to new employees within their initial 12 months who need flexibility right away? This not only hinders their ability to excel in their roles but also creates barriers to creating a more inclusive work environment. It also excludes employees who work differently, regardless of whether they meet the criteria for flexibility. Everyone has their own preferred ways of working that suit them, and they should always have the freedom to do so. In short: regulation isn’t always helpful.

💻 Focus on outcome, not hours 

We recently shared our thoughts on Atlassian’s approach to flexible working where the focus is on how people work, not where. In three years of implementing their work from anywhere policy Atlassian hasn't seen any dips in productivity. The same theory applies for the hours people work, regardless of when these are. At the heart of the matter lies the principle that autonomy drives productivity. Employees who have the freedom to manage their time are more motivated and efficient. Every employee should have the right to work how, when and where they want as long as the outcome is the same. 

How flexibility can create a more autonomous and inclusive workplace

Instead of imposing one-size-fits-all regulation, employers can do better by giving their team the autonomy to manage their workload themselves. By championing flexible working, employers can worry less about imposing rules and more on how their teams can thrive and do their best work.

Here are 5 ways flexible working will create a more autonomous & inclusive workplace. 

  1. Builds Trust & Autonomy with Employees: The bottom line of autonomy is trusting your team to work in a way that suits them. Autonomous teams are more productive, happier, and healthier. By giving employees the freedom to take ownership of their work, it will give them greater success, both personally and professionally.
  2. Attracts and Retains Diverse talent: By offering flexible working options, you're casting a wider net and attracting a more diverse pool of talent. People from all walks of life have different needs and responsibilities outside of work, and flexible working arrangements accommodate those diverse needs. Plus, once you've got this awesome team in place, they're more likely to stick around if they know they have the choice to work in a way that best suits their needs. 
  3. Collaboration and Innovation: Contrary to what some might think, flexible working doesn't mean collaboration can’t happen as easily. In fact, it can actually drive more collaboration and innovation as teams prioritise in-person collaboration and async deep work. When your team has the freedom to work where and when they're most productive, they're more likely to bring fresh ideas to the table and collaborate in new and exciting ways. After all, inspiration doesn't always strike between 9 and 5!
  4. Promotes Work-Life Balance: Work-life balance, or work-life blend as we like to call it, is something everyone is striving for. However, it can’t happen if we’re being told exactly what to do and when. Flexible working can help bridge that gap by giving employees the flexibility to juggle their work commitments with their personal lives. Whether it's attending a child's school play, squeezing in a midday yoga class, or simply taking a breather when they need it most, and cracking on with work later in the evening. Flexible working empowers employees to find that sweet spot between work and their personal life.
  5. Increases Productivity: By giving employees choice when it comes to flexible working they can decide when they're most productive, and the work style that plays to their strengths. And when employees are in their productivity zone, great things happen—projects get done, goals are smashed, and everyone walks away feeling like they've accomplished something amazing.