Modern technology makes it easier than ever for businesses to stay in touch with their employees at any time of the day.
This can be beneficial - when you need to maintain communication with remote workers, for example - but from a management perspective, there are important questions to be asked about the frequency of contact and maintaining boundaries between work and home life.
In Portugal, a law has been passed that bans bosses from contacting employees outside of their agreed working hours. Could this be a sign that attitudes are changing and businesses need to think more carefully about how and when they communicate with their workers?
Portugal's new law
Dubbed 'right to rest', the legislation passed in the Portuguese parliament features measures including:
- A ban on bosses contacting staff outside their contracted hours
- Potential fines for companies with more than ten employees that break this rule
- Permission for parents to work at home indefinitely, without getting prior approval from their employer, until their child turns eight
- Potential employer payments to workers for additional expenses incurred due to home working, such as electricity and internet bills
- An obligation on businesses to arrange regular face-to-face meetings with remote workers to tackle isolation and loneliness
- A ban on companies monitoring people working from home
Writing in The Guardian, Ana Catarina Mendes, parliamentary leader of Portugal's Socialist Party, said this new law will help to make the country a "more egalitarian society" and is an "essential move" to create clearer boundaries between people's work and home lives.
What about other countries?
Portugal isn't the first country to take legislative action to protect employees from work emails and communications in their personal time.
France, for example, passed a law in 2017 that requires organizations with more than 50 workers to set hours when members of staff are prohibited from sending or answering emails. Italy and Spain have also introduced rules clarifying workers' 'right to disconnect'.
In the US, however, it's less likely that specific laws will be introduced to prevent employers from contacting staff after hours, especially at a federal level.
Orly Lobel, professor of law at the University of San Diego, told The Guardian this isn't an area lawmakers are paying attention to right now, partly because there are so many other areas of labor law in the country that "could be better". She also pointed out that these sorts of rules aren't reflective of the realities of global business, where it's always possible that urgent issues could arise at any time and require immediate attention.
Julie Kashen, Director of Women's Economic Justice at the Century Institute, said the US has a long history of "not having policies that make it easier to work and have a life, or work and have a family".
But while federal legislative action in the US is unlikely, employers can take their own stance on what they consider acceptable and in the best interests of their staff where work-related communication is concerned.
Your policy position
Complying with legal requirements in territories where you do business is, of course, essential, but as a private company, you have the power to establish policies and set certain standards regarding communication with staff.
Engage with your employees, conduct surveys and encourage team members to talk to their managers about after-hours contact. If it becomes clear there is widespread concern about this issue and it's having an impact on workforce wellbeing and attitudes, consider policy changes you could make to introduce stricter boundaries between work and people's home lives.
This is an area where many companies could be doing more, with research indicating that less than 10% of employers have specific policies relating to work-related communications outside office hours.
It could prove particularly important for American businesses to revisit their policies on this subject. The dangers of excessive working are clearer than ever, and the US has been ranked among the ten most overworked countries in the world.
Taking action to protect your employees' personal time could help you build a happier and healthier workforce. This will deliver significant commercial benefits in the long run, since what's good for the workforce is also good for the business.