Ciara Ruane tells HRNews about a new code of practice to give employees the right to disconnect outside normal working hours 
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    A legal right allowing employees to switch off from work is being formally considered for the first time in Ireland in a development that could be replicated in the UK. Balancing home life with work is a challenge for most people at the best of times but now, in the worst of times, we may see legislation, or at least a code of practice, lending a helping hand, at least in Ireland. As the Irish Times reports Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission has launched a consultation on a new code of practice which will give employees the right to disconnect outside normal working hours.The code will set out guidance for employees and employers with regard to the best practice and approaches to employee disengagement outside normal working hours. It was first requested by the deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar earlier this year. He is quoted saying: ‘We want remote working to become a bigger part of life after Covid. It’s really important that we get this right so that employees can switch off from work properly’. Currently there are two bills which have been drafted, both of which propose introducing the right for the employees to disconnect and, in addition, the Commission has been asked to implement the code that will be admissible as evidence in court. These are early days and it’s unlikely that either of the Bills will be implemented in their current form, however, changes are likely and this is going to be very much in focus for the year ahead. A number of our number of clients in Ireland are already looking this and are proactively taking steps now to help employees to disconnect. Dublin-based lawyer Ciara Ruane joined me by video-link to discuss this. I asked her what action her clients are taking:

    Ciara Ruane: “There are four things I'm currently advising on, Joe, in relation to what employers should do to help employees to disconnect. The first of those is to implement a policy in relation to the right to disconnect which would outline what the company's boundaries are, and guidelines in relation to the right to disconnect and when implementing that policy, I think it's really important to get stakeholders views, so employees, managers, senior people in the business as well, getting everyone across the board to input on that policy. That policy then should also be communicated to the employees and they should also get training in relation to that policy. Some tips should be given to employees along the lines of how to properly manage their time and also some practical tips on how to practically disconnect from technologies, turn off notifications and so on. The second thing I'd recommend is for this to be embedded within the workplace and for this to be done it really needs to come from the top down. So senior managers should ensure that they are really following this policy. For example, if it's the policy of the company not to contact employees outside of core working hours, managers should refrain from emailing colleagues outside of core working hours, or if they are emailing them then advise them that they're flexible working and that they're sending that outside of core hours but they don't expect a response. The third thing I would recommend to introduce email footers or 'out of offices' to explain that there are core working hours and if you contact the company outside those hours they won't receive a response, or an email footer to highlight if somebody has a non-working day and that they would respond because it's a non-working day. Then the final, fourth, step I'd recommend is to manage expectations with colleagues and clients around this, clearly outlining what the core working hours are, what response times will be and what will happen if they do issue correspondence outside those core hours then there may not be response. So they are the four basic building steps that employers should implement to ensure that employees can disconnect.”

    Joe Glavina: “It’s interesting, Ciara, that Ireland is looking at this now – it’s not something the UK has done yet – but I understand a number of other European countries are well ahead on this, even ahead of Ireland?

    Ciara Ruane: “Yes, that's right, Joe, a lot of other countries have been quite proactive in this area. For example, in relation to Germany, they already have a history of implementing the right to disconnect through policies. For example, in 2011 Volkswagen introduced a policy whereby their employees would not be contacted by their mobile phones outside of the core working hours. Other jurisdictions as well have been proactive. France has introduced legislation in this area. In 2016 they introduced legislation which requires employers to document what the situation is in relation to the right to disconnect as part of their terms of employment and then further legislation was introduced in 2017 which required employers in France that had more than 50 employees to ensure that they documented what their non-core working hours were and to advise that employees should not send emails outside of these core working hours. Other jurisdictions as well are being proactive such as Spain. They have now introduced legislation which provides that employees during their rest breaks and holidays should not be contacted, that they have a right to disconnect during these periods. So other jurisdictions are being proactive. In Ireland as well, although no legislation per se has been introduced yet on this point specifically, some companies are starting to look at this and an example of this is AIB which has implemented a policy with the financial services union around the right to disconnect,  and even at Pinsent Masons here we're starting to look at this and we are rolling out the 'Mindful Business Charter' in the Dublin office and as part of that we're looking at the right of employees to disconnect and really looking and focusing on being respectful of people's times, not contacting them during working hours and making sure that rest breaks and lunch breaks are free from meetings. So it's definitely an area where there's a lot of scope out there to look at other jurisdictions and other employers to see what they're doing to get some ideas.”

    The consultation on the Commission’s Code of Practice on the ‘Right to Disconnect’ is now open. The deadline for submissions is 5pm on 22 January.