To reply or not to reply to calls during off-work hours—Part 2: Some examples of the “right to disconnect” and the values needed to practice it

In the previous article, we discussed why there is a need for the right to disconnect. The right to disconnect refers to the right to choose not to respond to calls outside of working hours, and is a concept that has been gaining in popularity as a means of achieving well-being for people who want to clearly distinguish between their working and personal lives.

In this article, we will introduce initiatives being carried out in various countries and companies. Looking at multiple case studies, let’s consider what kind of environment is necessary for organizations to realize the right to disconnect.

This article—Some examples of the “right to disconnect” and the values needed to practice it—is the second part of a two-part series.

(Part 1—The “right to disconnect” for the sake of well-being—can be found here.)

National and local government initiatives

To start things off, let’s take a look at developments regarding public legal regulations and guidelines, as well as judicial precedents, in various countries and regions.

As for recent news, the Portuguese Parliament passed a law on November 15, 2021, to protect the right to disconnect. (1) But what initially prompted this was a revised labor law that came into effect in France in January 2017. It marked the first time in the world that the right to disconnect was legislated at the national level.

According to Hosokawa (2019, p. 46), French labor law requires employers to annually discuss with their workers ways in which to exercise the right to disconnect and the regulation of digital tools. If they should fail to do so, employers are instead obligated to stipulate how they will exercise the right to disconnect and to educate all employees, including executives, about the reasonable use of digital tools and take steps to raise awareness. (Author’s note: The text of the quoted source has been edited for easier comprehension.)

According to Yamamoto, Uchida, and Orsini (2020, pp. 123–124), following its implementation in France, the right to disconnect has now been legislated in Italy, and several other countries and regions, including Canada, the Philippines, and the U.S. State of New York, are in the process of enacting it.

In Japan, although the term “right to disconnect” is not used, the same concept can be found in guidelines and precedents.

In its “Guidelines for Promoting the Proper Introduction and Implementation of Teleworking” (2), Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare states that when implementing teleworking, it should be noted that “because work-related instructions and reports can be issued with greater ease regardless of the time of day, the distinction between work and personal time can become blurred, making it difficult for workers to secure time for their personal lives.” The guidelines also cite measures that embody the right to disconnect, such as restricting the sending of e-mails and limiting system access.

Additionally, the Tokyo District Court, in a ruling issued on June 10, 2020, determined that frequent communication outside of working hours constitutes power harassment. (3) With regard to communication outside of working hours, the court ruled that the supervisor’s “repeated requests requiring subordinates to report on their activities during non-working hours (Author’s note: frequent contact by telephone, etc., after around 11:00 p.m.),” in light of the “manner and frequency” of the requests, which were deemed “words and actions that cause mental or physical distress or worsen the work environment,” corresponds to power harassment.

While the circumstances, namely frequent contact outside of working hours, were a little excessive, this way of thinking seems to partially recognize the right to disconnect.

Based on the two examples mentioned above, it would appear that the concept of the right to disconnect itself, which came from overseas, has already begun to take root in Japan. Such uniform regulation by the government, however, could create disadvantages and challenges. For example, it could prevent various companies from reflecting the differences in their corporate culture or, due to advancements in globalization, it could present issues when doing business with regions in different time zones. In addition, despite the advantage that it can be recognized by the courts as a legal right, it could prove challenging to determine under what conditions legal violations occur.

More realistic, practical examples from the corporate world

On the other hand, the measures being implemented by each company are more flexible, and we can see that the companies are looking for and introducing realistic approaches that suit their particular circumstances.

The following three examples were introduced by NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, Inc. in its “Precedents: Work-Style Reform and the Right to Disconnect.” (4)

The first example, of physical restrictions, comes from Volkswagen of Germany. Based on feedback from its employees, Volkswagen introduced a system in 2013 in which e-mails are not forwarded to employees’ work phones from 6:15 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. the following morning.

Next, some companies have put conscious restrictions in place. In 2016, Johnson & Johnson announced a company-wide policy calling on all employees to refrain from sending internal e-mails after 10:00 p.m. on workdays and holidays.

Johnson & Johnson’s “Our Credo,” on the company’s website, states: “We must provide an inclusive work environment where each person must be considered as an individual. We must respect their diversity and dignity and recognize their merit.” (5) The company-wide call to recognize those necessitating the right disconnect is based on the company’s credo, and can be viewed as one manifestation of the concept of diversity and inclusion.

Furthermore, BMW in Germany allows its employees to “perform work outside the workplace and outside of working hours upon consultation with their supervisors.” The company believes that, while there is a need for boundaries between work and private life, it doesn’t want strict rules that undermine the benefits of flexibility in the way its employees work.

Employees who want to ensure their right to disconnect in companies such as these will need to make a conscious effort to avoid opening communication tools during off hours, and use e-mail systems that automatically send a reply notifying others that they are off the clock.

What values are necessary to practice the right to disconnect?

As shown in the examples described above, it would seem that the scope and extent of the right-to-disconnect measures that each company has implemented have been designed to make it easier for their own organizations to operate. But, regardless of the method that is chosen, isn’t it crucial to ensure psychological safety within the organization along the way?

According to Edmondson (1999, p. 350), psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This can be interpreted as an environment in which individuals can convey their thoughts and ideas to, and take an interest in, each other. It is thought that the psychological safety provided by being able to easily share your own values within the team makes it easier to disclose your choice “not to connect” to other team members.

Rakuten Asia has introduced an initiative that sets aside time for employees to focus on their work, and established no-meeting days within teams, which are noted on a shared calendar so that members can see not only their own work but also that of everyone else as well. (6)

It is felt that efforts such as these will help people maintain an awareness of what they are currently dedicating their time to, and will make it easier for individuals to convey their choices to connect or not to the team.

There’s no single answer to how to go about realizing the right to disconnect. But what could provide insight into the matter is the realization of something at the root of the matter that was introduced in the previous article, namely that other people may perceive time and breathing space differently from the way you do.

Everyone has their own approach to designing the way they make use of time. Starting off by understanding such differences among members will make it easier to get an idea of how to realize the right to disconnect within the team.

Raku Chat (7), an easy-to-use open-source website tool offered by our institute, poses questions to determine how each individual in the organization allocates his or her work and private time, and “breathing space” respites during the workday.

Why not start by using a tool such as Raku Chat to create an opportunity to communicate and share your values regarding time with the other members of your organization, and then discuss the right to disconnect within your team?

Works cited:

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (2), 350-383.

Hosokawa, R. (2019). “ICT’s Challenge to ‘Working Hours’—Is the ‘Right to Disonnect’ a Prescription for a Solution?” Japan Journal of Labor Studies, 709, pp. 41–51. (in Japanese)

Yamamoto, Y., Uchida, T. & Orsini, P. (2020). “Future Work Style Reform and Labor Issues in Health Management: Focusing on the ‘Right to Disconnect’,” Bulletin of the Faculty of Management Information, Niigata University of International Information Studies (3), pp. 117–128. (in Japanese)

(1): Nikkei, “After-hours phone calls, maximum fine 1.26 million yen: Portugal’s new law” (in Japanese, referenced on January 20, 2022)
(2): Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, “Guidelines for Promoting the Proper Introduction and Implementation of Teleworking” (in Japanese, referenced on January 20, 2022)
(3): “Recent Major Labor Precedents and Orders (February 2021),” Labor Law Division, Keidanren (in Japanese, referenced on January 20, 2022)
(4): NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, データ経営研究所“Precedents: Work-Style Reform and the Right to Disconnect” (in Japanese, referenced on January 20, 2022)
(5): Johnson & Johnson, “Our Credo” (referenced on January 20, 2022)
(6): Rakuten Asia Pte. Ltd. (LinkedIn), “Tips to be more productive by Tatsuo Hidaka” (referenced on January 20, 2022)
(7): Rakuten People&Culture Lab, Raku Chat (Web-based communication tool)