Last month, Brooklyn Council member Rafael Espinal proposed a new law that could make it illegal for employers in New York City to require their employees to check their email accounts outside of official working hours. If passed, The Right to Disconnect bill would make New York City the first U.S. city to ban private employers from asking workers to be on call after hours. Notably, similar legislation has already been passed in France.
On the one hand, I welcome Espinal’s initiative. As he said in an interview: “I think that because of technology, the lines have been blurred on when the workday begins and when the workday ends, and there are employers who take advantage of that fact.” He’s right—the lines have been blurred. We’re working longer than ever before, and in some cases, employers do exploit their ability to capture employees’ time, even when they are in the privacy of their home cooking dinner or trying to put their kids to sleep.
I also agree with the spirit of Espinal’s initiative. He says he wants workers to be able to “decompress, reduce anxiety, and be able to perform better when they get to work the next day.” But can disconnecting only be achieved through legislation? Is passing legislation even a good idea?
As a psychologist who has spent much of the past decade writing about the impact of living in an overwired world, I’ve thought a lot about the very issue Espinal wants to tackle. In my first book, Rewired, I demonstrated how our overwired and digitally distracted world was slowly eroding our ability to focus, and worse yet, rewriting our brains. In my most recent book, Create More Flow, I returned to this problem in order to offer powerful and actionable strategies to disconnect. This is exactly why I think legislation alone won’t work when it comes to regulating work-related communications after hours.
To start strategically disconnecting and reclaiming our work-life balance, we don’t need to enact bills–we need to take ownership.
Step 1: Move Out Of Crisis Management
Prior to the internet or even fax machines, we had to think ahead and set realistic expectations regarding time. Back in graduate school, I had a professor who had a sign on her door that read, “Your procrastination is not my problem.” It was a not-so-gentle reminder to everyone that we shouldn’t expect her to work on our schedules. More than two decades later, a lot of people today expect 24/7 responsiveness. If we can’t reach a client or employee via email, we text–or even call–them. But do we really need to be in crisis mode all the time?
Step 2: Reinvest In Interpersonal Skills
There was a time when calling people after 9 pm was generally considered a no-no, unless faced with an emergency. Today, this basic decorum has been thrown out the window (or at least reduced to texting). “Sorry to bother you, could you . . . ” In the process, a lot of people have allowed themselves to be on 24/7 and don’t even know they have actively chosen this.
Step back and think about how to be more considerate in your communications. If you’re a manager, remember that you permit what you promote. If you’re bombarding employees with text messages at all times of day, you’ll be promoting a culture of always being expected to communicate. If you are on the receiving end, think of how and when you respond. If the request is not urgent and you decide to respond, you are essentially giving permission for future after-hour requests.
Step 3: Get Disciplined
The reality is that when we try to respond to everything all the time, we start making compromises. Our communication is not as deliberate, precise, or impactful. Slowing down and thinking about what you really want to communicate (even questioning whether you need to send a message) is a great place to start. This, of course, requires discipline—the discipline to communicate with intention, and to do so on a consistent basis.
Step 4: Rethink Your Work Environment
An upside of Espinal’s proposed legislation is that companies cannot assume that people will work long hours simply because they have been asked to do so. This in turn might drive companies to assess what is and isn’t working. Companies will have to recognize that work time really is finite; there are only so many hours in a day and a week. To address this, companies need to ponder whether the increased distraction and decreased productivity is worth it in an open office space. With limited time, how could leaders and teams rethink meetings so that they are more impactful and effective? The trick is not to use up every hour of the workday, but rather to optimize the time we spend working so we can get more done in less time.
The bottom line: Legislation is a temporary solution that distracts from the need for individuals to develop the discipline and skills needed to disconnect in an increasingly wired world.
Camille Preston is the author of Rewired: How to Work Smarter, Live Better, and Be Purposefully Productive in an Overwired World, and Create More Flow: Igniting Peak Performance in an Overwired World. She holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Virginia and advanced training in leadership from Georgetown University.