On disconnecting from work

The ABC this week reported on a so-called right to disconnect won by the union covering Victorian police, and being pushed for by other large public-sector unions. The “right to disconnect” says that management must only contact employees outside of hours in an emergency or to check on the employee’s welfare.

A follow-up article has the acting chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jenny Lambert, asserting that such a right is not aligned with the “modern 24-hour economy” and that the right to disconnect “is unlikely to be welcomed by many employees”. The ABC doesn’t say on what grounds the ACCI presumes to speak for employees or why workers should align themselves with a 24-hour economy rather than the other way around. (One might even wonder why the ABC had to speak to the acting chief executive, presumably standing in for an actual chief executive who wasn’t at work when the ABC called.)

Speaking for myself, while I often scan e-mail while not at the office so as to keep in touch with what is going on and learn if there really is an emergency, I don’t reply unless absolutely necessary. Being on leave from my university position as I write this, I have particularly fresh experience with how much e-mail can simply be deferred until I return without doing any real harm to the work that I do.

Of course part of managing work communication in this way lies in the choice of times to be away from the office: I chose to take leave this week precisely because it’s the week after all enrolment matters should be settled and few if any students should have need to contact me. And it helps that my employer has structures like out-of-office replies and delegation that direct a lot of traffic away without my intervention.

That said, the Australian Computer Society’s article on the issue makes the point that a right to disconnect is as much about reducing the temptation to check work communications outside of working hours as about being expected to respond to them. For me, at least, scanning and sorting e-mail without replying doesn’t take very long, and I guess I prefer it to arriving back at work with an enormous backlog of unseen e-mail. But, remaining in the ritual of checking e-mail every morning and afternoon even when I’m on holidays, I can see their point.

Either way, the 24-hour economy (or even my specific employer) can apparently get by without me for sixteen hours or so each day, and for weeks at a time when I’m on leave. One might even contend that a 24-hour economy requiring all hands on deck at all times is in fact a rather fragile one.

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