Research carried out across 12 major European companies where employees enjoy the right to disconnect shows that the preferred model is the so-called ‘soft approach’ as this allows more flexibility to both workers and employers. On the other hand, the ‘hard approach’ which is based on the concept of stopping work-related communication completely, even by switching off the computer servers outside the working hours, has emerged as the least favoured.

This finding emerged from a Eurofound report which looked into existing practices on how the right to disconnect is being implemented across Europe. The idea is based on the concept of protecting workers from having to reply to phone calls or emails after work hours, which is also referred to as over-connection.

At present just six EU Member States have legislation in place to guarantee the right to disconnect – Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia and Greece. In the case of Malta, the government has indicated its intention to introduce this right but talks between the social partners have not yet started. Last January the European Parliament passed a resolution on the matter which called on the Commission to enact an EU-level directive.

The Eurofound research was carried out by analysing 12 case studies at Banco Santander in Spain, BMW in Germany, Enel (Italy), Evonik (Germany), Groupe JLO (France), Solvay (Belgium), Telefonica (Spain), Total (France), UniCredit (Italy), Volkswagen (Germany), the banking sector in Spain, and the insurance sector Germany. In all these companies and economic sectors make up over one million workers.  

In 11 out of these 12 cases studies the right to disconnect was implemented through a soft approach. The only exception was Volkswagen where connection between the server and employees’ smartphones is disabled after work. Employees can only make phone calls but do not receive emails, text messages or video calls. Exceptions on specific projects can only be obtained through a request in writing.

Hard vs Soft Approach

The main difference between the two approaches is that a hard disconnection takes the decision on whether or not to reply to a message out of the hands of employees. This addresses the concern that, because of unequal power in the employment relationship, a worker may feel the need to respond to communications despite a right to disconnect being in place, either because the company or managerial culture rewards over-connection or because of the worker’s own desire to perform work, including to demonstrate ‘commitment’.

The actions taken to operationalise a right to disconnect (rather than a right to be disconnected), the allocation of individual responsibilities and the ‘tone’ adopted by an agreement regarding the underlying reasons for over-connection can play important roles in ensuring a ‘no blame culture’ and that workers feel enabled to disconnect without fear of suffering negative repercussions.

Belgian chemical company Solvay has adopted the following approach which sums up the main concept behind a soft approach “Do not expect people to respond in their leisure time, on public holidays or during vacations. In the event of a crisis or emergency, use the telephone”.

When the soft approach is implemented, there must be measures to raise awareness of the risks of constant connection, training and the management of out-of-hours communication (such as through regular reminders that messages do not require an answer outside of working hours).

The case study examples also demonstrate the importance of high-level commitment to the right to disconnect and of managers leading by example. An option in one of the agreements that is worth considering is the inclusion of indicators measuring the implementation of the right to disconnect as part of managers’ key performance indicators.

A number of potential disadvantages can arise from the hard approach. The approach limits flexibility, as employers are not able to ask workers to be reachable and to perform tasks outside the stipulated connection corridor. Another disadvantage can arise for workers who wish to have the flexibility to organise their working time, for example taking time off during the day for other responsibilities and returning to work in the evening.

The research also showed that in countries that have introduced the right to disconnect the number of collective agreements covering this issue at sectoral and company levels has increased both during the discussion and preparation phase of legislation and following its adoption.