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Columbia Business Monthly

The Electronic Leash: mail, your employees and the right to disconnect from work

By Dr. Ezaz Ahmed 

We love our portable electronic devices, particularly our smartphones and tablets. It helps us stay continuously connected to our near and dear ones, through social media, texts and especially email. 

According to London-based technology and market research organization Radicati Group, over 281 billion emails were exchanged among 3.8 billion users in 2018. In the next five years, the total number of email users is expected to increase to 4.5 billion, and we will likely be exchanging over 333 billion email messages annually. 

In workplaces all over the world, email remains the most significant and universal form of communication, with most employees checking their work emails after office hours or even during holidays and vacation. That means employees may physically leave their office space but they don't leave their work and emails behind—in other words, they fail to cut the "electronic leash."

It is well-evidenced that working long hours may cause significant health issues, such as stress. One in five members of the U.S. workforce suffers from some form of stress originating at work. Given the overall importance of email, a question arises: Is it time for us to update our workplace HR practices or pass relevant laws protecting hardworking employees from staying connected all day to their workplaces through emails? Other nations have.

Both France and Germany have implemented laws to protect employee rights from remaining connected 24/7. A recent French labor law does not ban work-related emails but does require that organizations with more than 50 employees negotiate a new protocol to ensure that work does not spill into days off or after-work hours. The law seeks to minimize workplace stress. Meanwhile in Germany, a 2014 law prohibits managers from calling or emailing staff after work hours, except in the case of an emergency. 

Closer to home, New York City councilman has proposed a law that will prohibit employers from forcing employees to check and reply to after-hours emails. Early last year, Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a "right to disconnect"bill that would fine employers $500 if they forced employees to check emails after work. The bill hasn't moved forward.

Another question: can after-hours email be considered a "virtual" form of work? If the current workplace law is interpreted correctly, most employees in the United States do not need to reply to emails after office hours. However, some employees might feel obligated to reply to after-hours emails to prove their commitment to the organization.

Legislation, rules and regulations related to workplace practices have evolved over the last 100 years, but it does not currently consider the virtual workspace. This is also a challenge for lawmakers, HR practitioners and employers when learning how to deal with the virtual workforce. There need to be updated rules, regulations and policies in place within organizations to support these changes. 

However, having more workplace rules and regulations may not change the mindset of employees and employers on how and when they communicate. 

Workplace flexibility is now a reality in the United States, where approximately half of the workforce works from home, off-site or in a flexible schedule. We need to dig deeper into how we can update our expectations to remain connected. 

It is time for us to rethink how we work, where we work and how we maintain a healthy workforce. So, an employee's right to disconnect should be their right in a fair and an inclusive organizational context.

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