Getting employees to unplug from work after hours

COVID-19 has fostered manic workdays. Remote employees juggle kids, pets and work projects. Living rooms double as offices. E-intrusions are unrelenting. Pounded, crammed and connected, there’s no offramp for remote workers.

“Work and life boundaries are entirely blurred—they’re working harder and longer,” says Rhonda Scharf, an Ottawa-based workplace efficiency consultant at “Employees feel the need to prove how busy they are and show how much they are getting done.”

Sure the work is getting done but at what cost? Employees are working from home to protect them from COVID, but it’s important to protect them from e-leash burn out too. And even though may workers have a tendency to just keep going, sometimes you have to encourage your team to switch off when home becomes their office. Actually insist on it, for the good of their health and your company’s too.

Unplugging from work is not covered by any labour laws, unlike in Europe, so it’s up to employers to devise guidelines and set the tone. “If you expect your employees to disconnect, then show them how to do it,” Scharf says.

Here’s how to get your team to disconnect after hours (this doesn’t include staff that’s on-call, for example, as per their employment contract):

Go for guidelines, not rules

Consider an employee handbook with guidelines, not a rule book, suggests David Dial, a workplace performance specialist at in Calgary. “Set realistic expectations and outcomes one on one and as a group. Then people can hold themselves and others accountable for their behaviour.”

Employee participation in agreeing to and establishing these remote working norms is critical to success, and so too following up on how unplugging is playing out. Dial says a two-way communication loop lets workers share their struggles and managers can share their observations. This helps you handle small items before they become big issues.

Lead by example

 Walk your talk, Scharf says. “If the CEO can disconnect, that allows all the managers under that person to disconnect, and they should demonstrate to their team the importance of disconnecting.

“If a manager continued to work after hours even when the senior leadership team discouraged it, I would expect their behaviour to be addressed and discouraged,” Scharf says.

A policy is only as good as the leadership team, so writing it down won’t matter if you aren’t practicing it, she says. “It has to be more than a paper-only policy—it has to be enforced and demonstrated.”

Clarify expectations

If it is unreasonable to have everyone completely disconnect, clarify things like response-time expectations, says Scharf. “For instance, if I send you an email at 10 p.m., it is not expected that you reply to that email until the next morning. Just because I am choosing to work at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean that I expect you to work.”

Perhaps have a guideline that states that all emails sent after 6 p.m. have no expectation of response until after 8 a.m. the following morning.

Incentivize rather than punish

If you need someone to be available after hours, offer some incentive rather than a consequence, Scharf suggests. “Many companies provide a stipend for being on call if needed. By making that optional, then you are offering the incentive to those that want it.”

If an incentive isn’t possible, like time off or additional money, ensure that the punishment isn’t the alternative, she adds. “For instance, if you are looking for volunteers to be on call, some will never accept without an incentive. They will be ‘punished’ by the team and management as not being a team player. Some will feel pressured into ‘taking their turn’ when they don’t want to be on at all.”

Avoid blanket rules 

Tread carefully if you’re considering instituting a company-wide disconnection policy—blanket rules may negatively impact workers on human rights grounds, says Sara Forte, employment lawyer/founder of Forte Law in Surrey, BC.

Flexibility is incredibly important to some workers. “For example, working parents may need flexible work hours due to school closures and a hard shut off time may mean parents are not able to work,” says Forte.

Acknowledge the need for flexibility

Edelman Canada recently suspended their Dusk 2 Dawn disconnecting policy which discouraged sending non-urgent emails after hours, on weekends, and on personal time off.

“We recognized the need for increased flexibility that accommodated personal circumstances, but we still encouraged the spirit of disconnecting,” says Scott Evans, general manager of the Toronto office of the global communications firm.

While telling staff it’s ok to connect after hours, they also gave permission to say no to over-connecting. “We began to realize a few weeks into the pandemic that there was a bit of overkill on connecting through video conferencing in an effort to keep teams engaged. We again gave people permission to say no so that they could focus on the most essential work to balance their days,” Evans says.

Start with an assessment

Now don’t go all knee-jerk with this—start with an assessment, recommends Forte. Ask yourself: Is this a concern for your workers? Is there a safety risk? What hours are being worked?

“Considering whether there should be policies or guidelines about disconnection is part of a health and safety plan, especially for remote workers,” Forte adds.

Keeping employees healthy is critical during COVID-19. So too is managing employees virtually. Turn to the Monster Resource Center for articles with useful advice on taking care of business during the pandemic.