Q: Portuguese lawmakers recently approved rules that support employees’ right to disconnect from work, i.e. prohibiting bosses from texting and emailing staff after hours of work. Surely this is a step in the right direction, given that so many of us work early and late and deal with burnout?
A: Working from home and digital technology put the choice of working hours in the hands of colleagues. With no clocking in, no office hours and, for many, no office, there is a major shift in the work week.
There is no doubt that some workers are taking advantage of this and adapting their work to a shorter week, but many are tempted to work overtime which reduces their free time. Bosses shouldn’t take advantage of co-workers who are conscientious and so eager to please that they constantly listen. There are times when a weekend email is just fine — but employees can always turn off their computers.
I love having the latest sales figures which means an email every night and especially on Christmas Eve which is one of the most important trading days of the year. This is how retailers operate: always eager for the latest information. Our activity does not stop on weekends. Most outlets are open seven days a week and problems can arise at any time. So in an emergency, colleagues can be contacted to see if they can help. It might not be in their contract, but when faced with a problem, I would expect the boss to ask for volunteers.
It would be a mistake to follow the Portuguese example and ban all contact outside working hours. Although the law provides an exception for “force majeure“, what this means is unclear. Circumstances inevitably arise when contact is essential – for example, when an accident shut down the factory, the sudden death of a close colleague or (currently common) a severe Covid outbreak.
The Portuguese law, which provides for an obligation for the employer to pay the household bills of certain homeworkers, was hailed by Dr Anne Sammon of Pinsent Mason as a “brilliant and bold step”. This is probably very good news for lawyers who seem keen to see all employment practices spelled out in legislation. Before long, we’ll be forced to follow a set script at every job interview.
We don’t need more employment laws. Parliament and lawyers have done enough damage. We need less regulation and more common sense. Over the past 40 years, management has evolved from managing people to complying with legislation. In my book, great managers use experience and personality to treat co-workers with consideration and kindness, but labor lawyers and civil servants evaluate managers on their ability to play by the rules.
This column could turn into a rant, but I make no apologies for pointing out how the relentless advancement of pedantic personnel law sucks in the real talents of people management. The government should support companies that do the right thing instead of telling them what to do, especially when managers are forced to upset their superstars.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago we sold one of our subsidiaries and as a result had to reduce our overhead costs by laying off 10 people. We followed the rules and informed everyone in the finance department that they were at risk of being fired, including Karina, who had been instrumental in tracking our numbers for more than three decades. There was no chance that Karina would be fired, but our legal advisers forced us to lie to her. Since then, I have sworn to tell the truth instead of ticking all the legal boxes.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I felt like the officials who write the legislation set a gold standard for personnel management, but I’m not sure they do. They may be focused on playing by their own rules, but they miss the benefits of trust and delegation offered by inspiring leaders with the courage to be a maverick. It’s a shame the NHS learned nothing from the first three months of the Covid outbreak, when the need for speed ruled out new policies and processes, allowing frontline staff to use their experience to cope to the immediate crisis.
Most organizations learned a lot of lessons in the past 18 months, but the public sector, thinking there was nothing to learn, carried on as before and recruited more people at an increased cost to taxpayers. .
Having now finished my rant, may I plead for less legislation? I propose a law that promises a reduction in bureaucracy: for any new employment law, at least two existing rules must be eliminated.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of high street service provider, Timpson.
Send him a question at [email protected] and read more answers from his Ask John column here