The idea of digital rights for a digital world is not a new one. Since 2014, for example, we have all had a ‘Right to be Forgotten’ from online search engines. Now, in a world where we are all on the grid all the time, IMPACT’s Kevin Callinan tells us why Ireland’s workers need a ‘Right to Disconnect’.
Bespoken as it is by ping pong tables, vintage arcade consoles and bean bags, the archetypal modern tech-office serves to blur the line between work and play.
The layout of our smartphone home screens renders this same dynamic but in two dimensions. My own phone serves as an illustration; starting in the top-left corner and moving to the right along the top line of apps, I have Netflix (play), Twitter (work), Kindle (play), Mail (work) and Chrome (both).
Spatially, then, whether within the Silicon Valley office space or on the tiny glowing screens we all carry in our pockets, work/play boundaries are becoming harder and harder to see.
Though more difficult to detect, the same blurring is happening when it comes to our time. The internet allows for the elimination of space through time: we live in an age when ‘to commute’ from ‘home’ to ‘work’ can mean to move one’s right thumb an inch from the Netflix icon and onto the Mail one. This, of course, comes with advantages as well as disadvantages.
However, one result is an ‘always-on’ work culture in which employees are kept on a kind of electronic leash. The most perfect realisation of this to date is the caffeine-fueled ‘start-up’ culture in which interns regale each other with ‘two guys in a garage’ origin stories that fetishize obsession. This is a culture in which someone’s ambition is measured according to how early they set their alarm.
If Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak – form a sort of holy trinity for the ‘start-up’ faithful, then the Government regulator is their antichrist. The muse, they will tell you, is not a clock-watcher. Inspiration comes when it will: ‘close of business’ means nothing to a true innovator. That’s all fine when you’re childless, cash-rich, time-rich and a twenty-something Ivy League dropout with virtually no responsibility to anyone but yourself.
‘Spontaneity’ and ‘Flexibility’ become bywords for the expectation that employees are available for undeclared work at all times. The tyranny of that expectation, though, and the hidden hours demanded by it, are incompatible with a good life. A workaholic can’t be a successful parent. Silicon Valley ‘creatives’ may scoff at trade unions or at government regulation; but it has always been the combination of precisely these two forces that has delivered the most progressive moves on working-time reform – including, of course, the weekend.
We must rescue the spirit of that progressive change from the relentless progression of work creep. The ‘Right to Disconnect’ is the weekend for the twenty-first century. Fundamentally, it is about clarification and definition. Employers must clarify the expectations they hold in relation to employee work email. They must also define what constitutes reckonable work for the purposes of payment and overtime. These measures alone would go a long way towards redressing the work-life balance and reclaiming some leisure time from the quicksand that is modern work.
The stakes are high. It may be easy to write this off as a Trade Union arguing that workers should clock out at five each day regardless of circumstance, but that’s not what this is. Primarily, this proposal is about human health and wellbeing. ‘Always-on’ work culture is linked to anxiety, burnout, clinical exhaustion and relationship problems. Secondarily it is about correcting for the unfair advantage accrued by those allowed by their circumstances to work on a 24/7 basis, over those who provide care to a dependent child or relative. As things stand this injustice runs along clear gender and age lines.
This is not an anti-business proposal. It should not be punitive. It should function as a ‘soft law’ that aims to nudge the narrative towards a focus on digital manners. At its core should be the notion that employees ought not to be expected to respond to work email outside of work hours. The precise mechanism that an employer adopts in fulfilment of this basic principle need not be circumscribed by law. Reforms need not be radical: simply disabling the ‘reply all’ function after a certain time each day would deliver significant gains with virtually no cost.
In fact, this is a pro-business idea. True innovation takes time. Time away produces fresh ideas. Distance from the task is critical to gaining a perspective on it.
Kevin Callinan is IMPACT’s deputy general secretary. IMPACT is Ireland’s largest public service trade union.