The past 18 months have shown us that when it comes to disaster planning for business the biggest risk for many isn’t, surprisingly, something like a global pandemic, but the strength and integrity of their IT systems.
The majority of businesses could not have survived the pandemic without remote working – and we have seen a rapid increase in the digitalisation of office working as a consequence. Studies show home-working increased by 30 per cent throughout lockdown.
Greater digitalisation of the office was, frankly, long overdue and the working environment had felt quite analogue – at least compared with the way we manage our personal lives using smartphones and tablets.
But while remote working and the use of more technology to support it has brought obvious benefits, it has also exacerbated a long-recognised problem: the so-called ‘always on’ culture.
We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this problem for businesses. Research from Eurofound shows employees working from home are more than twice as likely to exceed the Working Time Directive maximum of 48 hours per week. Remote workers also find it harder to separate work from leisure; 30 per cent reported working during their free time, as against 5 per cent of those physically in the office.
This has clear repercussions for our private lives, family lives, and ability to rest and recharge our batteries. But it also has legal implications. Employee burnout, and the inability of workers to switch off, creates a raft of potential legal risks including health and safety, personal injury, and employment claims – not to mention the wider ramifications for society as a whole.
But with remote working seemingly here to stay in some form, we are now starting to see demands for a legal framework.
The origins are already there in mainland Europe; France, for example, has long been regarded as a pioneer in this area, since implementing a legal right for employees to digitally disconnect from work in 2016.
French law jealously safeguards both holidays and leisure time. Similar protection looks likely across the EU, as the EU Parliament this year called for a new directive on the issue.
So what should UK businesses expect? Companies should not wait for legislation. While any EU directive on this issue will not apply to the UK post Brexit, the direction of travel is pretty clear.
Whether or not new laws are coming down the track, companies would be wise to put their own, commonsense, frameworks in place now. Some, like the Mindful Business Charter, already set out best practice and include practical processes to encourage companies to be more mindful and work smarter.
The pandemic has triggered a wholesale reset of many workplaces in the short-term, but some elements will almost certainly remain. It is likely hybrid working will become the norm for many professions, at least in the medium term. But, whether we see a specific disconnect law or not, the potential impact of new working models on mental wellbeing means we all need to be thinking a lot more about this issue.
Michael Leftley is head of employment and immigration at law firm Addleshaw Goddard