A ‘ding’ indicating a new text or email has arrived on your cellphone or laptop is often too tempting to ignore for most people, especially when it’s work-related and even if it’s outside of what’s considered regular work hours.
The creation of the Working for Workers Act, 2021 aims to change this by requiring employers to develop a policy related to the right for employees to ‘disconnect’ after work, as well outlines prohibition – with a few exceptions - on non-compete agreements.
“Ultimately, it’s about mental health and making sure people can have that perspective on it and companies are supporting those decisions,” says Frank Newman, who operates Cambridge-based Newman Human Resources Consulting. “The end result is a more productive work environment, but we’ve got to change our habits because we’ve gotten so used to emailing or texting late at night.”
The new Act requires that as of Jan. 1 of any year, employers with 25 or more employees must have a written policy in place before March 1 of that year with respect to having workers ‘disconnect’ from their jobs. As it stands, employers will need to have a policy prepared by June 2 of this year.
“Most will start from scratch and there will be quite a few policies that can be impacted by this,” says Frank, adding employers could begin by examining any current hours of work, or overtime policies they may already have in place.
However, he says the process doesn’t have to be a daunting task and should begin with some clear discussion between employers and their employees around expectations, on both sides.
“This is a great opportunity to really have an open dialogue with employees and start working on the question of what can you do to increase their performance during office hours, and how do they feel about disengaging,” says Frank, noting it’s hard, especially for those working at home, from keeping close watch on their cellphones or tablets. “This is not a ‘do or die’ policy that deals with laying off people or increasing wages. This is basically looking at the working environment to see if it’s productive and are employees happy and feeling comfortable after shutting down.”
He says many organizations are still trying to find their ‘groove’ in terms of hybrid working arrangements since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting there are simple steps they can take to improve productivity when it comes to managing a remote workforce.
“For example, look at the way we structure emails. Do you always put ‘urgent’ in the subject line? Do you copy all your co-workers in every email?,” he asks, adding some workplaces have created times during the week where no meetings are scheduled to give employees the chance to work, or encourages them to take breaks. “There is a whole bunch of productivity protocols that companies can look at as part of this. But companies need to be creative with this, otherwise people are just going to fall back into old habits.”
For starters, Franks says it’s imperative that companies define what are ‘regular’ working hours and the expectations they have for employees surrounding them.
“But more importantly, it’s about how you define what those expectations are after working hours and during emergencies,” he says, adding this is especially important for companies with offices located in other time zones. “You also have to think about how you contact with people when they are on sick or maternity leaves, again, respecting their right to disengage.”
Also, Franks says companies must define if this policy will apply to everyone.
“For example, if you’re vice-president of finance you may not be able to disengage during off hours,” he says. “But obviously, the intent of this is to turn everyone off if you can which is very difficult in this day and age.”
In terms of setting up a policy, Frank says it should start with a shift at the management level explaining leaders of the company may have to try and curb themselves from sending emails or messages after hours.
“Even if they’re texting or sending emails among themselves at those times, that’s going to filter through the organization,” he says.
But ‘disengaging’ is only one aspect of the Act. Another is the banning of non-compete agreements that prevent employees from exploring other opportunities, apart from ‘C-Suite’ executives.
“This is a good thing,” says Frank. “But it could be a little challenging for companies because they could lose some of their talent to competitors.”
However, he says having a comprehensive policy in place could also become a valuable tool to entice new talent, a bonus considering the ongoing labour shortages in many sectors.
“It’s also a positive way to be able to attract employees because many are looking for more time off and more flexibility,” he says. “Companies can develop these policies as a positive way to say this is our values and this is our work culture. There’s really no risk to this.”
However, Frank admits it remains yet to be seen how the Province can enforce this Act, noting it will probably fall under governance of Employment Standards.
“This is going to be a challenge,” he says. “Trying to get the government to respond at the best of times can be a challenge.”
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Working for Workers Act at a glance:
February 19, 2024
July 28, 2023
Canadian Chamber of Commerce
January 29, 2021
March 27, 2020