We’ve all been there. You jet off for a week-long vacation, and you’re ready to hit the beach—but before you can even get your toes in the sand (much less a margarita in your hand), your phone buzzes with a work notification. Just like that, the illusion of your unplugged vacation shatters into a million tiny pieces.
In other words, you lost your “right to disconnect.” The concept is exactly what it sounds like—an employee's right to shut off work outside of working hours (whether on vacation or not) without fear of repercussions.
The right to disconnect is becoming more challenging to define as employees and employers alike struggle to determine what “working hours” should look like in today’s digital work landscape. When remote work is the norm, the office is always within reach.
Here are four simple changes to make that will empower your employees to unplug after hours without fear, while protecting their right to disconnect.
1. Adjust Communication Expectations
Prioritize work-life balance by building a culture in which considerate communication is the default. Take a good, hard look at the communication guidelines you currently have in place and adjust them as needed to reflect the following:
- Normalize asynchronous communication. Make it clear that getting an immediate response from a coworker should be the exception, not the rule. Provide a maximum response time frame to keep projects moving forward (i.e. within 24 hours, M-F), but also communicate that team members don't need to be monitoring communication tools 24/7. Dropping everything to respond to a Slack breaks employees’ concentration, and is 9 times out of 10 unnecessary.
- Have employees list their working hours (and time zones) on their Google Calendars. If you’re allowing employees to work flexible schedules and/or across time zones, make sure it’s clear when people are available and when they aren’t. Providing access to this information will help employees be respectful of their coworkers’ working hours and avoid scheduling snafus.
- Embrace a “schedule, don’t send” policy. Once it’s clear when everyone is working, coach employees to schedule Slack messages or emails for the following morning instead of sending them when the recipient is “off the clock.” For items that aren’t time-sensitive, employees should preface requests by saying “this isn’t urgent” so people know there’s no rush to respond after hours.
When employees know how they’re expected to communicate, it’s easier to make the decision to unplug once the workday is done. Clear communication expectations also alleviate the pressure to check emails during dinner or frantically type up responses to questions that could wait until morning.
2. Encourage A Healthy Work/Life Balance
You can offer unlimited vacation time or flexible hours—but if your employees don’t feel like they can take that time off without experiencing negative repercussions (like being passed up for a promotion), there’s a huge issue.
Show employees that you’re committed to promoting a healthier work environment with internal policies that promote flexible work scheduling and taking time to relax—whether that’s on vacation or just outside of working hours. Evaluate your existing policies and consider whether they provide clear expectations when it comes to:
- Remote work capability. Who can work remotely, and are there different expectations for remote workers compared to employees who are based in the office? Spoiler alert: in equitable workplaces, there shouldn’t be. Either way, employees need to know exactly what working remotely entails in order to determine whether it would be something they enjoy, or if it would serve as a potential source of additional stress.
- Working hours. Is the company offering a flexible working schedule, standardized work hours, or something in-between? For companies with fixed hourly quotas, it’s important that employees know exactly how many hours they’re expected to put in each week so they can set personal boundaries.
- Production goals. Let’s say you’re kissing the 40-hour workweek goodbye and opting for a more modern, outcomes-based model of work. Have employees been provided with written instructions on how much work they’re expected to complete each week? To embrace flexibility and avoid burnout, employees need to easily be able to tell when their work is done.
- Benefit usage. Are you clearly communicating to employees all the benefit offerings available to them (including supplemental health or wellness perks)? More importantly, do upper management and HR use positive language when discussing these benefits or inadvertently discouraging their use? If employees feel like they can’t or shouldn’t use their benefits, they won’t, which drives them to overwork themselves.
By clearly defining expectations upfront, employers eliminate much of the uncertainty regarding what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in the workplace. As a result, a healthy work/life balance helps empower employees to unplug without the fear of repercussion.
3. Respect Vacation Time
A generous time-off policy isn’t just a nice thing to offer—it can also help avoid productivity slumps. A 2018 survey from LinkedIn reported that employees who don’t take vacation end up feeling overwhelmed (58%), disorganized (21%), and less creative at work (97%).
If you want your employees to return to work refreshed and inspired, you have to enable them to enjoy time away from work with no interruptions. Consider putting the following etiquette guidelines in place and encourage your employees to respect them when coworkers are OOO:
- Gather “need to know” info upfront. Chances are that coworkers and/or managers will need to step in and help while an employee is out of the office. Simplify that process by asking employees to create coverage documents that clearly define who will take care of each task. This resource gives everyone ample time to connect, gather relevant details, and clarify coverage questions before the vacation begins.
- Promote radio-wave silence. It’s hard to ignore the urge to check a Slack notification, even when you’re off the clock. Encourage your employees to remove the temptation altogether by muting work notifications while they’re on vacation.
- Opt for Loom over Zoom. Instead of carving out additional time on their calendar post-vacation for a lengthy Zoom catch-up, ask employees to use Loom while coworkers are OOO to record video updates they can view/digest once they return.
- Track updates in one area. There is nothing worse than getting back to the office and trying to figure out what happened while you were gone. Set all of your employees up for success by using an enterprise-level work management system, so all project info, files, and updates are tracked in one place. This system makes jumping in to cover projects a breeze and allows for an easier transition back into the office post-vacation.
By putting these safeguards in place, you’ll enable your employees to spend vacation the way it should be spent—in blissful, guilt-free relaxation!
4. Set Up A Knowledge Base
Want to make sure your employees can get the most out of their off-the-clock hours? Eliminate the need for anyone to contact them by creating a system where information is accessible company-wide. Use a formal knowledge base tool such as Trello to centralize this content for your organization.
What is a knowledge base? Atlassian defines a knowledge base as “a self-serve online library of information about a product, service, department, or topic.” It’s essentially one massive, online catalog that houses any information that new or existing employees may need to access. This includes client details, notes, training tutorials, internal docs, onboarding resources, and more.
There are many great reasons why companies should consider setting up a knowledge base (including letting Jan enjoy her beach margarita in peace):
- They’re an organizational godsend. Trying to keep track of all your internal guides, notes, and training materials is a nightmare—especially when you’re a larger enterprise. With a knowledge base in place, your employees will never have to worry about trying to figure out whether the information they need is buried in the drive, lost in their email, or living in someone else’s head.
- They ensure consistency. Ask three people to explain how to complete a specific task, and chances are they’ll all give slightly different answers. Knowledge bases eliminate this issue by standardizing how information is explained and/or learned company-wide.Thorough consistency is incredibly important when you’re primarily client-facing and have multiple people involved on each account.
- They enable employees to function autonomously. Asking questions should always be encouraged, and knowledge bases make it possible for employees to proactively find those answers on their own—eliminating the need to reach out to a manager for clarification and promoting autonomy in the workplace.
- They’re cost-efficient (and great for onboarding). So much time is wasted over repeating the same training for new hires. Turn those training materials into written or visual content in your knowledge base to save your team time and provide new hires with a simpler, more engaging learning process.
With a great knowledge base in place, employees can jet off for vacation and rest easy knowing the coworkers covering for them have all the information they need right at their fingertips.
Make The Decision To Disconnect An Easy One
As our world shifts toward remote working, it’s becoming more difficult for employees to disconnect from their jobs completely—not just during vacations, but also on a regular basis at home. By taking proactive steps to encourage a healthy work/life balance, companies can decrease burnout and make guilt-free unplugging a reality for employees—protecting their right to disconnect now and in the future.
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