Voices

Put workers at the centre of changes to email culture

Rebecca Long-Bailey wants employees to have the right to disconnect
(Reuters)

The always-on work culture has become the target for one of Labour’s leadership candidates, with Rebecca Long-Bailey backing union calls for a British right to disconnect. As technology continues to blur the line between work and family life, this is absolutely the right debate all politicians should be having.

Every day millions of workers are affected by being unable to switch off. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 15 per cent of us constantly monitor work emails outside work hours; another 25 per cent check them at least five times a day. The impact of this culture is felt unequally: if you’re a parent or carer, for example, you might find it a lot harder to respond to emails out of hours.

This isn’t a problem that will go away. The future of work means that technology is going to further encroach into our private lives. If we can’t fix that now and account for the tech we use at the moment, how will we cope with what is coming down the track? Today it is about emails or WhatsApp messages, but tomorrow it will be name badges with sensors, employer apps on your phone that track your movements or other wearable devices that give away your data.

Statistics show that the implicit expectations that workplace technology put on us is taking a toll on our health. A third of employees agree that remote access to their workplace means that they can’t switch off in their personal time; almost a fifth say it makes them feel as though they are under surveillance, making them anxious and impacting their sleep.

Technology gives people the flexibility to work from home, to do the school run – but almost a fifth of workers say it makes them feel under surveillance

The picture is complicated because the very people who are likely to be disproportionately affected, eg carers or part-time workers, are also those who can really benefit from technology. Technology gives people the flexibility to work from home, to do the school run, to get your hours in without the need to be tied to a desk in an office. CIPD reports that 30 per cent of employees see remote access to the workplace as empowering; 41 per cent say it helps them manage their workload; 51 per cent say it enables them to work flexibly.

The “right to disconnect” should be about empowering employees to work in a way that’s right for them, the jobs they do and the lives they lead. For example, the French El Khomri law doesn’t stipulate when employees can or can’t look at their phone, but rather requires companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate protocols with staff.

These arguments can be applied to the use of virtually all new technology in the workplace. If you give workers a say in how tech is implemented, and the expectations for its use, then it benefits everybody. The pressure of expectations and the inherent power imbalances of the workplace mean this cannot be a case of individuals taking responsibility for how they work. This is where unions come in, to represent the voice of workers and ensure that all have a stake in the changes being made. It is why my union Prospect is so involved in campaigning for better data rights and responsible technology.

We are backed up by the OECD which argues that the future of work lies in “collective bargaining and social dialogue”, in “shaping new rights, adapting existing ones, regulating the use of new technologies, providing active support to workers transitioning to new jobs”.

If the UK is to both keep up with the technological revolution and enhance our wellbeing, this is how it needs to think.

Andrew Pakes is research director at the trade union Prospect