The ‘Right to Disconnect’ – is workplace flexibility at risk?

As the owner of an HR Advisory business for Australian SMEs, I have reservations regarding the “right to disconnect” legislation passed by Parliament on 12 February 2024.

This proposal aims to grant workers the ability not to respond to work-related emails, calls, or texts outside of working hours without repercussions.

Flexibility in work arrangements is a two-way street.

Flexibility in the workplace is not just a buzzword; it’s a fundamental aspect of creating a supportive and inclusive environment. It’s about recognising that life happens outside of work and providing the necessary flexibility for employees to balance their personal and professional responsibilities. However, employers also need the flexibility to manage their workforce effectively, especially in today’s dynamic business environment.

When my children were younger, asking for time off for school pick-ups, to attend school concerts, or parent/teacher meetings was, at best, an uncomfortable discussion. What I see today with our SME clients is a workplace culture that has evolved to be very supportive of such requests. However, the employees that we support understand the need to strike a balance that meets both business and personal needs.

I would argue that it’s essential to carefully consider the potential implications on existing flexible work arrangements. While advocating for employee well-being and work-life balance, we must also ensure that any changes to the industrial relations framework do not inadvertently hinder the flexibility that both employers and employees value in today’s workplace.

The effectiveness of these changes largely depends on the specifics, which have not been fully disclosed. Implementing the ‘right to disconnect’ may entail revisions to employment agreements or awards, a process that is not immediate or straightforward. The “reasonable” test applies, ie the employee, where reasonable, has the right to switch off. Of course, the “reasonable test” can be subjective as it relies on individual interpretations and perspectives. Under this legislation, where there is a dispute, an application can be made to the Fair Work Commission to make an order under this new section of the Fair Work Act.

As HR consultants, we know that work-life balance is a key engagement driver for our clients and their teams. It’s equally important to ensure that changes to the industrial relations framework are implemented thoughtfully and with consideration for the practicalities involved – practicalities that include working across different time zones, the requirement for business travel, and yes, the desire and genuine intent to support flexible working arrangements.