Exclusive: You’ve got the right to disconnect!

Just because they can send you email or phone you at all hours day and night doesn't mean you have to answer.

Suppose you went to jail for opening work email after hours. That sure would help with the old work-life balance.

Fast as the list of federal crimes has been growing, I doubt Congress will render the opening of email when you’re off duty a federal offense. Perhaps the administration could issue a policy. More on that in a second.

Many years ago Microsoft developed a new server operating system. It was called Microsoft NT. A nationally read newspaper published a story of how the company’s large team of developers on the project worked so hard they literally slept at the office as the project neared completion. This went on for months. Many kept sleeping bags at work.

One employee quoted said his child offered to give up every toy he had if only dad would come home from the office in time to see one of his (the child’s) soccer games. That anecdote stuck in my mind.

Yes, work can be demanding.

Any federal functionary who’s participated in the launch of some new emergency or short deadline program knows what it’s like. Congressional reaction to the pandemic spawned several high-dollar programs for overnight launching. Unlike those 1990s Microsoft developers, many of the overworked in the past couple of years have already been at home. Lots of those soccer games have been canceled. If anything, people with kids at home have been getting too much time with them.

By 2002, the pager for email, otherwise known as the Blackberry, came onto the scene. As a pianist (of sorts), I gained new meaning for the idea of using your thumb for the black keys, thanks to that device. More crucially, it cemented the idea of email anywhere, all the time.

You always knew bosses and hypercompetitive peers who sent emails after dinner or at 2 a.m. With mobile devices charging on people’s nightstands, such jerks developed the expectation of getting answers after dinner or at 2:05 a.m.

Now teleworking has taken over worldwide, bringing all of the office computing resources into people’s homes. Without concern for Beltway traffic, Metro mobbing, or MARC train delays, employees have extended their own workdays, in some cases by hours. You know how that goes. Well I’ll work to 6:30 just this once. Well, I’ll work to 7 just this once. Pretty soon, you’re always working.

Thus the neutral response to that federal employee “pulse” survey question: “I feel exhausted in the morning at the thought of another day at work.” The 3 on a 1-5 scale means people rate themselves on both ends of the scale. Who wouldn’t feel exhausted in the morning if you were up doing email at 2 a.m.?

It so happens, in the land of 35-hour workweeks and cradle-to-grave governmental safety nets — the European Union — after-hours email is verboten, at least in some places. A publication called DeMorgen reported recently that Belgian government officials “may no longer be called by their boss after normal working hours from February 1.”  This was issued by Belgian Minister of the Civil Service Petra De Sutter. She called it the “right of disconnection.”

It doesn’t ban after-hours email so much as draw managerial boundaries.

A second provision in De Sutter’s circular states a federal employee “shall not be disadvantaged if he does not answer the phone or read work-related messages outside normal working hours.” These policies apply to about 65,000 civil servants in the land of great chocolate and witbier. Employee unions have expressed suspicion, because the policy allows for vaguely-defined exceptions.

My hunch is the U.S. federal workplace is sufficiently civilized that SESers aren’t routinely calling lesser mortals at all hours. And that rarely does the average fed receive an email that can’t wait until the morning for a reply.

I don’t know about Europe, but the U.S. federal workplace, for all its hierarchical customs, is more culturally horizontal than large-scale private sector organizations. Leaving aside the appointees, the SESer might have a nicer car than the GS-whatever contracting officer, but both drive themselves to work and take the same elevator. No workplace is nirvana, but if you log off and silence your phone at 5:30 or 6, you’ll still have a job in the morning.

I have a friend, a high level state education official, who does a lot of volunteer and collegiate alumni work. She once remarked her policy is to shut everything down at 8:30 in the evening. That’s a pretty good approach.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

Belgium holds the record for longest period without an elected government in a democratic country. In 2020, Belgium announced its new government 652 days after the previous one collapsed. This broke the previous record of 589 days, also set by Belgium, in 2010-2011.

Source: The Guardian

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