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The right to disconnect in the age of WFH

Business resiliente

14/12/2020

Agile working as the new normal: consequences and outlook

WFH paradigm shift

Whether we like it or not, working from home (WFH) has become the new normal for many people. It has resolved the problems imposed by the need to socially distance and a large swathe of workers now work from home. This method has overcome scepticism and overturned the myth of “if I don’t see you working, how do I know that you actually are”. These beliefs have been debunked by greater productivity that actually generates the opposite issue: people work more from home! This has been proven by data and especially those published by the giant Microsoft following its most recent survey on WFH with nine out of ten Italians stating that they work more from home compared to when they went into the office. Company leaders confirm this, with 87% of interviewees stating that they have seen positive effects in terms of efficiency and productivity. In particular, productivity levels have remained equal to or better than the first lockdown period.

The new possibilities of reachability and constant connection have a huge impact on our working lives

The right to disconnect

Paradoxically, the risk of working from home is that you end up working all the time. Far from the shared office space, it becomes easy to work longer than the usual office hours to meet requests from your managers in a world where connections and reachability are greater than in the pre-Covid-19 normality. The report prepared by the social platform Linkedin provides astonishing confirmation of this, 48% of the sample analysed noting that WFH has led to a heavier work load. Around one in every two Italians has worked at least an extra hour a day. To remedy this situation, the right to disconnect has been touted and continues to be talked about. This is the right of employees to disconnect from their work devices, disengaging from work activities (sending emails, making phone calls, sending messages, etc.) outside normal working hours without fearing they may damage their future careers. The right draws a line between communications during and outside work hours. In its meeting of 13 May 2020, the Italian Data Protection Authority stated that it is necessary to provide clear-cut guidance about the right to disconnect as this is fundamental for work-life balance and to ensure that some of the most important achievements for traditional work patterns are not jeopardised.

In a hyper-connected work environment, the right to disconnect means a better quality of life

The right to disconnect is being touted as a fundamental right and lawmakers in the EU are pushing for its recognition. At present, the right is not explicitly enshrined in EU laws and members of parliament have asked the European Commission to issue an EU-wide directive. In January 2021, the parliament will vote on the proposal in a plenary session and its subsequent approval by the European Commission will incorporate the right to disconnect in EU legislation applicable for all the member states.

Technostress and burnout

The right to disconnect not only protects workers’ free time but is also essential to safeguard their mental health. The lack (or blurring) of boundaries between private and work lives can cause work-related illnesses. In 2007, technostress was officially recognised as an occupational illness. This term was coined by the US psychologist Craig Brod in 1984 to identify stress caused by the use of new technologies and, specifically, their malfunctioning. Therefore, technostress is a type of stress caused by the improper, excessive, dysfunctional use of technology such to have a significant impact on an individual’s working and social lives. It is often linked to factors such as information overload, the excessive use of digital devices and too short lead times. All these factors can contribute to anxiety, headaches and insomnia.

Technostress can cause enormous production, financial and organisational damages

Another occupational stress-related syndrome caused by work is burnout. This is the result of exposure to a chronic stress condition which can lead to physical, emotional and psychological damage in the long term. Chronic stress symptoms are characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.

WFH - benefits and environmental issues

The benefits of working from home are not only higher productivity levels but also include employee wellbeing. According to Microsoft’s survey, workers especially appreciate some of the possibilities offered by working from home such as being able to dress more casually (77%), having more free time for their hobbies (49%), their children (36%) and pets (22%) and having a personalised work environment (39%).
Working from home does also have negative aspects in terms of the loss of in-person interaction with colleagues and the related opportunities for brainstorming. However it is clear that WFH is essential when eliminating all non-essential activities is necessary to beat a global pandemic. The truth of the matter is that the advantages of having many workers to go to the workplace do not balance out the risks involved. Working from home is not only a good idea for social distancing but also has a positive effect on the environment. In fact, once we have dealt with the public health emergency, the issue of climate change will return to the forefront.

WFH means less energy consumed, less plastic and lower toxic emissions

For example, working from home offers a decrease in energy consumption and traffic on urban roads. ENEA (the Italian Agency for new technologies and sustainable development) has estimated that WFH reduces the daily commute of each person by roughly an hour and a half, for a total of 46 million km avoided, equal to eight thousand tonnes of CO2 emissions avoided.

The future of WFH

The public health emergency has made WFH indispensable and now many companies are unwilling go back to the way things were. According to the “Future of work 2020” survey of large Italian companies carried out by Inaz and Business International, only 6% intend to return to the pre-WFH situation. In future, many companies will opt for some form of agile working: 39% implementing it two days out of five and 13% for just one day.

One of the most important take aways of the Covid-19 emergency is the emergence of a new work organisation

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the human factor, forcing many companies to reflect on their priorities. WFH and digitalisation are two essential factors requiring the investment of time and resources. They are closely intertwined as the former implies the existence of the latter: in order to be able to work from home, ongoing digitalisation is essential. However, the human touch should not be forgotten: companies should continue to be places of aggregation and socialisation, even at a distance. In addition, to fully benefit from the potential of WFH, work will have to take on a project-based structure which companies were not able to implement given the sudden onset of the pandemic.