Ontario employers that are now legally obligated to have a right-to-disconnect policy have tended to craft it in a broad fashion, rather than provide specific mechanics of how and when employees can switch off from work, according to advisers who have helped design such documents.
The province late last year introduced legislation dictating that Ontario-regulated employers with more than 25 staff would have to come up with a written policy by June 2 on how they will ensure that their employees do not engage in “work-related communications” after work hours. (The law excludes federally-regulated employers such as banks.)
“Most [employers] are starting out with very generic policies because people are still mentally trying to grasp how all of this works,” said Bettina Burgess, a partner in labour and employment law at Gowling WLG. Ms. Burgess said there was a general consensus among her clients that they were not going to be able to have a one-size-fits-all policy on employees’ right to switch off from work.
The Progressive Conservative government has said the right-to-disconnect legislation is intended to protect workers’ privacy amid technological advancements in the workplace, given the rise of remote and hybrid work. However, when the law was first passed, it was criticized by some for being “impractical” and lacking in detail, given that it was just a couple of paragraphs long and lacked information on how a policy could be implemented.
The province has since expanded its guidelines, with some specifics. For example, the legislation states that a policy should clearly outline expectations for employees around communicating on their days off or after work hours, and that the policy should apply to managers and executives of a company.
Crafting such policies has also raised questions about communicating with employees if there’s an urgent work-related situation.
“The legislation has forced employers to start thinking about what constitutes an emergency,” said Stephanie Little, a consultant with the Toronto-based human resources consulting firm Bright + Early. Ms. Little said her clients have included language that encourages employees to disconnect, but are careful to not explicitly mandate when that disconnection should happen.
“We work mostly with startups and they want to maintain a degree of flexibility. They don’t want to say ‘absolutely, please disconnect during these exact hours,’”
One of the actions Ms. Burgess has told her clients to take is start attaching FAQs to their policies.
“What happens if you’re in IT and you have to log in at 3 a.m. to deal with an issue? Come up with these scenarios so employees know what to expect,” she said.
Richelle Pollard, a partner at KPMG Law LLP specializing in labour and employment issues, said she was peppered with inquiries from employers about how they would implement the right to disconnect in the leadup to Thursday’s deadline.
“Employers certainly wanted to keep their policies rather broad, but I think the key thing to include is that employees will not be subject to reprisal if they disconnect after hours or on weekends,” she said.
The Toronto-based tech company 1Password, which employs approximately 800 people across six time zones, designed a policy about a page long which focuses on how employees can indicate to their colleagues and managers when they are available or not.
The policy, viewed by the Globe and Mail, tells employees to use communication tools such as Slack and Gmail to indicate the time zone they are working in and when they are online, offline, out of office or even when they might be slow to respond because of a personal appointment. It also asks employees to clearly indicate a response time to a request.
“If the recipient does not know the timing for the request, they may feel they have to respond immediately,” the policy states.
Erin Bury, co-founder of Willful, a do-it-yourself estate-planning platform, said her company introduced a right-to-disconnect policy despite employing under 25 employees because it was crucially important for her to create a healthy office culture.
“Startups are usually the worst offenders of overworking their employees and can be toxic workplaces,” she said. “I was surprised that the legislation didn’t include employers with under 25 employees.”
Willful’s policy, which Ms. Bury shared with the Globe, includes language that explicitly states employees will not be expected to respond to any kind of work communication outside their work hours.
“We ask all team members to ask the following questions before sending an off-hours communication: Is it timely? Is it important? Is it work-related?” the policy states.
Because Willful’s employees work across three time zones, the company has instituted a four-hour window from 12-4 p.m. ET where all employees should be logged in.
“Those are the only hours we dictate. Everyone is expected to work 8 hours but you can figure out how to craft those hours according to your personal schedule.”
But creating a culture where employees feel comfortable completely disconnecting from work is complicated and will take time, Ms. Burgess believes.
“Ultimately, employers should not want their employees to work excessively and should ensure their workload is manageable,” she said.
Ontario is the only province that has formally introduced right-to-disconnect legislation. Quebec toyed with the idea last year through a now-defunct bill. The federal government has convened an advisory committee to discuss the pros and cons of introducing new legislation to the Canada Labour Code, but progress is stalled because of substantial disagreement between committee members on legal implementation.
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