Flexibility versus the right to disconnect

Laura Brady
By Laura Brady | 2 August 2021
Laura Brady.

(Half the industry has between three and eight years’ experience. But we don’t always get to hear their thoughts. As part of a collaboration with GroupM’s Young Leaders Committee nCo, AdNews asked four of GroupM’s rising stars for their perspective on an industry hot topic.)

Flexibility, and the need for it is more apparent now than ever before in the history of work, but should we accept that we are now always on or do we have the right to disconnect? Wavemaker client and communications director, Laura Brady, asks what we really want for our industry.

It’s 5pm and that’s it, you clock off, shut your laptop and cannot be contacted. This is a scenario that is foreign to most of us in the agency world - it just doesn’t work like that. But this has now become the reality for the Victorian Police force whose new enterprise agreement, set out earlier this year, forbids the Force to contact employees outside of work hours. To many this may sound idyllic, but would it work for our industry and, more importantly, is this what we want?

Technically speaking, yes it would work. We are not a life-or-death industry (even though it may seem like it at times). Some may argue that it would be more straight-forward to implement for our industry, with most of us online during the standard working hours, versus the police force and other shift work focused industries. Even though media deadlines and pitches bleed into the weekends, and afterhours, we could agree universal “contactable” hours, either at an industry or individual company level and enforce a level of accountability. It wouldn’t be a simple solution, but the answer is yes, in practice, it could work.

But that brings me onto the more important question – is that what we want?

One benefit of COVID has been the permitted flexibility to fit our workday around our lifestyle. We are no longer chained to our desks from 9-5pm. We can take breaks when we wish, we can get fresh air and exercise during daylight hours and complete our work on a schedule that fits the rhythms of our life, rather than an office schedule. Many of these new-found freedoms have become non-negotiables in our lives and we’ve demonstrated that the work still gets done.

It is this flexibility that will provide a huge competitive advantage. A recent study by IBM shows that workers are now looking for more than just compensation, with them placing the importance of a work-life balance ahead of salary when asked regarding employee engagement. This is especially true for Gen Zers, who are the future of our industry.

However, for all the benefits discovered, there have been downsides. Working remotely can mean it’s hard to switch off. Your home is your office - so what’s to stop you working well into the weekend. We’ve heard about burnout, and the challenge of enforcing your own work-life boundaries around your home office. These concerns go hand in hand with increased flexibility.

The right to disconnect aims to protect employees and prevent the ‘always-on’ burnout. But does it undermine flexibility? There is concern that applying a hard & fast rule for everyone could take us backwards as an industry and in fact result in less flexibility. Our contactable hours would be dictated, and employers would likely demand that we are online and visible for the full standard contracted working hours – no logging on late or taking a break to pick up the kids. No more autonomy. We would go back to the days before portable technology – somewhat contradictory for a forward-facing industry.

Therefore, instead of a right to disconnect, is it instead this continued flexibility that we crave, allowing us to fit our work-life around our personal life?

The Mentally Healthy research conducted by UnLtd last year recorded that 56% of industry respondents were displaying symptoms of depression & 52% symptoms of anxiety. This is worrying. It shows that what we are doing already is not enough. There are constant conversations around the negative impacts and contribution of the long hours and demanding workloads that are a given within our industry. I am not saying that flexible working will solve this, but it will go some way towards allowing people to manage their workloads on their terms.

This conversation surrounding flexible working extends beyond the health and welfare of current employees, to the longevity of our industry and how we adapt to retain and attract the best talent.

Both initiatives, whether the right to disconnect or flexible working, promote a better work-life balance, but they cannot work interconnectedly. We either continue to flex to what suits us as individuals, or we have one rule for all. As an industry – publishers, clients & agencies – we need to collectively agree on what is going to best promote positive mental health, less burnout and increased creativity. The onus will then be on each company to apply this to their working arrangements. The guardrails of everything we knew previously have been abolished and this is now our chance to rewrite the working rules. An exciting time indeed and a conversation I certainly want to be a part of! 

Laura Brady is a client and communication director at Wavemaker and a member of GroupM’s Young Leaders Committee nCo.

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