Working from home? Make sure you take time to disconnect

Dropbox is driving healthier work/life balance among its global workforce

Last week, Microsoft became the latest large employer to allow staff to work permanently from home if they wish. The decision, which affects around 2,000 employees at its Sandyford campus in Dublin, follows that by Indeed, Facebook and Twitter which have all announced their intention to facilitate full-time or hybrid working from home subject to managerial approval.

The rapid shift to remote working over the last six months has shown up inadequacies in the working-from-home (WFH) model that were tolerable when only a small part of the workforce was affected by them. But when the shortcomings start having an impact on a significant proportion of the working population then employment protocols and policies need to change.

The adrenaline rush that carried everyone through the early days of the crisis is wearing thin and reports of mass tiredness, deteriorating mental health and increased physical and musculoskeletal problems can’t afford to be ignored if the great WFH experiment is to avoid being derailed by falling productivity and employees who are too tired to care.

Key to keeping things on track is ensuring that people take regular time off to recharge. But overcoming their reluctance to do so for fear of the consequences is proving to be one of the unexpected challenges of the pandemic.


"Culturally, we need to normalise and encourage disconnected time," Laura Ryan, director of international HR at Dropbox, told The Irish Times. "We need to discourage employees from promising 'I'll be out but still available' while the 'I'm so busy I can't take some time off' mantra needs to be challenged and viewed as an outdated, obsolete corporate badge of honour. There has never been a more important moment for leaders to move away from traditional micromanagement behaviours and prioritise their employees' wellbeing."

During Covid, we've also been trialling organisation-wide shut down days

Dropbox has its EMEA headquarters in Dublin and Ryan says the organisation has launched a number of initiatives to drive healthier approaches to work/life balance among its global workforce.

“An example of this is ‘unplugged’ time off which uses technology to tame the constancy of today’s worktech,” says Ryan, whose organisation announced earlier this week that remote working would become permanent for all Dropbox employees from next year. “In short, we’ve given employees the power to temporarily shut off all work notifications to their mobile phone while on annual leave. In doing so we’ve given them greater control and a better chance of truly disconnecting. To make things simpler, our integration also means that when our Workday system indicates an employee is back from PTO (personal time off), access will be automatically and seamlessly restored. The feedback so far has been hugely positive.

“During Covid, we’ve also been trialling organisation-wide shut down days,” Ryan adds. “Held once a month, typically to extend the weekend, these days give all of our employees a day back to manage and enjoy their personal lives. We are continuing them until the end of the year. We are also having a week-long shut-down in November to take some real time off as a company to reflect on what has been a year of firsts in many respects.”

Best estimates suggest that around 34 per cent of Irish employees are now working from home. Before the Covid-19 crisis the ESRI estimated that figure at around 14 per cent. This is about average for Europe where Sweden is at the upper end at around 30 per cent and Italy is at the lower end at around 1 per cent. The majority of pre-Covid home workers in Ireland were highly qualified males aged over 30 in well-paid jobs. By sector over a third work in education and ICT respectively with finance a close third at 26 per cent.

WFH is making it harder for people to unplug and quell anxieties about taking leave. This means organisations need to be much clearer about their time-off policies and to reassure people that days off are okay.

In the current circumstances finding something to “do” for a whole week might be a challenge, so some companies are encouraging employees to take more frequent shorter breaks. For example, an afternoon off a week. This is still worth doing as regular short breaks have been shown to be hugely beneficial in combatting the build up of work-related stress. Other organisations have responded by redistributing the workload and creating a rotating “on call” role that ensures there is always someone on duty, but others get a designated period of quiet time or time off free from interruptions.

The idea of giving a whole company a day off together might strike some managers as madness but those that have tried it say everyone benefits from 24 hours free from work texts or emails demanding action. Earlier this year the online jobs search company Indeed, which employs around 10,000 people globally and roughly 1,000 in Ireland, introduced company-wide time off called You Days. They are in addition to existing leave and the main reason for their introduction was a marked decline in people taking time off since the Covid restrictions kicked in.

“Any new initiatives will only become the norm if managers fully embrace them and role model the behaviour by switching off themselves,” Dropbox’s Ryan says. “We’re all learning how to harness workplace technology for productivity, connection, and collaboration in this new normal, but let’s not forget that sometimes the most powerful thing we can do for our employees is to give them the freedom to turn it off.”