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‘The last thing anyone needs is an email from their boss at midnight. It shows no consideration’

Formal arrangements are necessary to ensure the blurred line between work and personal lives during Covid is not institutionalised

Shena Brien, chief executive of IP Telecom: 'I’m someone who has my best ideas at three in the morning, but while I might write an email to a colleague about it then, it will be a timed email that won’t arrive in their inbox until 10am'

Shena Brien’s business is all about making connections. She is co-founder and chief executive of Irish telecoms company IP Telecom, which provides specialist cloud-based VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone solutions to business clients. In theory, she should be the last person advocating for disconnection. However, Brien is adamant that employers have a responsibility to ensure that employees don’t overwork: in her book, respecting their right to disconnect is fundamental to living this commitment rather than paying lip service to it.

“The lines between people’s personal and working lives became very blurred during Covid and there wasn’t much we could do about it. But now that people are back in the office or are remote or hybrid working, it’s time to get rid of the blurred lines for good,” says Brien.

The EU describes the right to disconnect as a worker’s right to disengage from work and refrain from dealing with work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-working hours. Closer to home, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) published a code of practice two years ago that defines the term in an Irish context and noted that it applies to all types of employment whether remote, mobile, at a fixed location or at home. The guidelines say that although different working arrangements may suit different employees within their respective business environments, maintaining clear boundaries between work and leisure is a universal right.

Brien says IP Telecom is completely on board with these provisions, adding that her organisation juggles the working arrangements of 34 people (a mix of software developers, network specialists and support staff) in four countries. This means some overseas staff start earlier than their Irish colleagues while flexible hours and hybrid working are accommodated as much as possible.

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“Our support people have to work Irish hours for obvious reasons, but developers can work at any time so our system allows them to log on for their working day when it suits them,” says Brien, an electronics engineer who founded IP Telecom with software developer Brian Chamberlain in 2010.

“But whatever their working hours, people need their breaks. They feel better in themselves and we all know we’re more productive when we’ve had our downtime. The last thing anyone needs is an email from their boss at midnight. It’s a very old-fashioned and outdated way to manage a team and shows no consideration for the other person.

“We believe it is incumbent on employers to have systems that prevent intrusion and monitor employees in a positive way to ensure they are not working excessively long hours,” Brien adds.

“There is no shortage of tools out there to facilitate individual log on/log offs or allow employees to programme their work number to only accept calls between certain hours. Companies just need to build these tools into their systems and use them, because you will always have employees who put in extra hours and don’t take their breaks. HR policies that enable and encourage people to switch off and that support flexibility and autonomy are really important, especially with how people work now.”

‘Everyone has the right to completely log off’: what bosses think about the right to disconnectOpens in new window ]

The right-to-disconnect code has three main elements: the right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours; the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; and the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect by not routinely emailing or calling them outside normal working hours.

However, there is also an expectation of some element of flexibility around legitimate crisis situations, when someone needs to be contacted in an emergency.

“I’m someone who has my best ideas at three in the morning, but while I might write an email to a colleague about it then, it will be a timed email that won’t arrive in their inbox until 10am so it doesn’t hit them the minute they walk in the door,” says Brien. “We also have a policy whereby we ask employees to take two weeks’ annual leave in the first six months of the year, so they don’t get burnt out and they have the energy to keep going for the second six.”

Failure to follow the code is not an offence but the guidelines are admissible in proceedings taken before a court, the Labour Court or the Workplace Relations Commission. That last body has made it pretty clear that it expects employers to conform, having developed a policy that meets the organisation’s requirements such as accommodating those working in different countries and international employee travel.

Even if people are working their own hours, employers are expected not to infringe on their personal time, and right-to-disconnect policies should be formally referred to in employment contracts and made clear during employee induction.

The process of everyone getting comfortable with post-Covid work-life boundaries is ongoing and, with many companies still not sure what the future holds in terms of working patterns, it’s crucial that they decide what constitutes normal working hours for them and make this information clear and available.

In a commentary about the right to disconnect code, law firm McCann Fitzgerald noted that employers with operations in multiple time zones may also need to consider “putting agile working arrangements on a more formalised footing with a view to ensuring a balance between the need for clarity in relation to employees’ ‘normal working hours’ and the employer’s operational needs.”