Contacting employees outside working hours – fair practice or intrusion?

Steve Jobs saw his iPhone as setting individuals free from overbearing governments, authoritarian organisations and, presumably, poor employers. But is that really proving to be the case?

But now (even for those who are not managers, owners or directors) the line between work and private time is becoming increasingly blurred. iPhones can make an employee in touch 24/7. The news item that VW would not be contacting their workers by smartphone over the Christmas period sparked a flurry of comments (256) on the BBC website. As they were mainly on Christmas Eve clearly these commentators were on their smartphones, netbooks or at least the internet in some form and many would have been using an employer-provided facility.

So is it right to contact employees out of work hours by smartphone?

The “fairness” argument must be complex.

• Who pays for the smartphone contract, for example.
• What do we mean by contact? Is it just emergencies (the office is flooded, don’t come in), information (here is the next shift rota) or instructions (get yourself over to Scunthorpe, the client’s just hit the roof)?
• What speed of response are we expecting? Do we expect the employee to read and react to the communication in the next hour, day or when they return to work?
• What about the employee’s responsibilities? Those with more senior responsibilities might reasonably be expected to be, well, more response-able when it comes to out-of-work time events.
• Some employees will value being able to work at times that suit them. Maybe they are happy to read e-mails on the commute to work; others may prefer to answer emails late in the evening after the children have gone to bed.
• Can employees just switch off their phones – or will that not be acceptable?
• Indeed is it in the organisations best interests for employees to have work-free time?
• Indeed, again, are all these out of hours messages really necessary?
• The risks for employers are potentially claims of bullying or harassment, or stress based claims.

We would recommend a dialogue with your employees, perhaps in groups selected by the out-of-work demands on them. Seek out views . After all if you have expectations that go beyond the specific times you expect them to be working for you then there should be some give and take.

Given reasonable consultation, accommodation and fair play, smartphones should work to everyone’s benefit – individual or corporate body.

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