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13 August 2018 | 0

Billy MacInnesBack in the early 2000s, a guy I knew from London got a job working in Dublin in the recruitment industry. Some time after he started working in Ireland, I met him at a party and I asked him how he found Dublin.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed,” he replied, “is when I look up from my desk at 5:30pm each evening and everybody that works there is heading for the door. That never used to happen in London.”

Having worked in London at a magazine where it was not uncommon for us to finish as late as 10pm on press day, I knew what he was talking about. But it also reminded me how much had changed in the UK because not too many years before I had been surprised and a little shocked to find that people I was talking to in the US and Japan frequently stayed late in the office after normal working hours.

Here we are in 2018 and things have changed again to the point where it is neither surprising nor shocking for people in Ireland to be in the office or working from home well after the supposed end of their working day.

In this always-on, always-available age, it can be hard for employees to switch off from work and, just as importantly, it can be too easy for employers to expect them to be ready for work when they feel the need arises.

My own feelings way back when I was working late hours was that there was no way they should be allowed to become the norm. I felt very strongly that if working late became part of the culture then people would be tempted to adapt their working practices to it rather than to fit their work into the normal working day. In effect, they ended up capitulating to the late working culture rather than fighting against it.

Boundary issues
It can be hard to make the break from work if the employer has created the conditions and expectation for late working. A Labour Court ruling from earlier this month could help to resurrect some of the boundaries that used to exist between work and the rest of an employee’s life. The ruling, in favour of a business executive who was expected to deal with work e-mails out of hours, has been described as “a massive wake-up call to employers who expect employees to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week” by employment law solicitor Richard Grogan.

Grogan told The Independent: “The law is very clear. Employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 11-hour break between finishing work and starting work the following day.”

It should not escape the notice of everyone reading this article that one of the reasons why employers expect employees to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is because the IT industry has promised (and delivered) technology that enables those expectations. The industry promotes technology as a means to provide freedom, choice and flexibility to employees, but the technology is often the enabler for employers to extract more from workers beyond their contracted employment hours.

Both parties may choose to believe the different stories the industry presents to them, but the Labour Court ruling shows that the law, specifically The Organisation of Working Time Act, isn’t so easily swayed. It’s an aptly named piece of legislature in this context because technology is driving a battering ram through our ideas of what constitutes working time and how it is organised. The ruling has drawn a line (for now) over just how far technology can go in helping to blur the lines between work and life.

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