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A Right To Disconnect Movement in the U.S. Could Benefit the Office Market

Whether people are paid by the hour or are salaried staff, employees are finding it increasingly difficult to keep work-related obligations from seeping into their off hours. Technology is mostly to blame for the encroachment on work-life balance. Now that we can work from anywhere, we can get emails and phone calls at all times of the day. And the remote work trend that exploded during the pandemic only made disconnecting from the office more difficult. Unfortunately, there is often no extra compensation for the masses who either can’t seem to bring themselves to stop working when off the clock or are obligated to do so.

In response, countries have started passing legislation to make it illegal to work during non-work hours. And as much as the United States enjoys the status of trailblazer, we are behind in addressing the right to disconnect from work. And confronting the topic, or failing to do so, could affect the office sector in terms of tenant space requirements. The national office market continues to suffer high vacancy rates and a new law that could be mutually beneficial for employees and employers may help mitigate the rash of downsizing in the office sector.

Europe is at the forefront of the right to disconnect. Back in 2016, France introduced right to disconnect legislation as part of a larger labor reform package, and at the start of the new year in 2017, French employees gained the right to ignore work-related emails and calls outside of work hours. Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland also have legislation in place preventing employers from imposing on employees’ downtime. More recently, as of January 2023, Belgians were given the legal right to disconnect, albeit with restrictions (the law applies to companies with 20 or more workers and excludes self-employed individuals and service providers). 

Europe, however, hasn’t cornered the market on right to disconnect legislation. Ontario, Canada’s law took effect in 2022; Kenya’s government has re-introduced a bill that would give workers the right to not be contacted by their employer outside of contractual working hours. Additionally, a legislator in Australia introduced the Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill into Parliament in March 2023.

While currently, there is no right to disconnect legislation in place in the U.S., it’s not as though the idea is a foreign concept. In 2018, members of the New York City Council introduced a bill tentatively described as “Private employees disconnecting from electronic communications during non-work hours.” The last activity on the bill was in December 2021. The Fair Labor Standards Act has rules about overtime, but that doesn’t address the issue. Although there are no local, state, or federal laws specifically addressing the right to disconnect, there may very well be such regulations in the foreseeable future. While they haven’t gained any traction, California and Washington have proposed relevant bills. And there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the issue.

Buzz or not, it appears right to disconnect legislation is not a top priority among U.S. legislators at the moment. But should a bill become law, it could have an impact on the office market, a positive impact. Employers who are eager to increase the number of in-office days for workers with hybrid schedules could entice them back to the workplace for a day of returning the phone calls and emails that they have felt compelled to address after hours while working remotely. According to a global survey by social media management platform Buffer, 81 percent of remote workers indicated that they check work emails during off hours, and 63 percent of the group reported perusing work emails on weekends.

While some companies are insisting that their employees make a full-time return to the office, most office-occupying businesses are sticking with hybrid work schedules and, as Colliers notes in a recent report, tenant downsizing has become the norm, with average space reductions between 20 and 30 percent. The right to disconnect boils down to boundaries, and office tenants could use those boundaries to increase the time employees spend in the office, thereby justifying the need to maintain or even expand their office workspace. 

The benefit of the right to disconnect for employees would be an improved work-life balance through designated workday limitations. With more clearly defined boundaries between work and home life, employees may desire to work in the office more frequently, which is precisely what many employers want. From the employer’s perspective, right to disconnect restrictions on employees’ time would likely prompt them to insist that workers spend more days in the office. Whether right to disconnect guidelines would make employees want to return to the office or make employers require them to do so, the presence of more employees in the office means the office space is being utilized by more people on a more frequent basis, thereby reducing the potential need to decrease the amount of square footage they lease. Right to disconnect legislation could prove to be a magic potion for staving off more office downsizing and moderating the ongoing struggles in the office sector. 

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