It’s Friday night and you receive a Slack message from your boss. Do you respond right away, or decide to leave it and answer Monday morning? 

That’s the kind of question employers are grappling with as debate mounts over whether Canada should adopt “right-to-disconnect” regulations, allowing employees to ignore work-related emails, phone calls or messages outside of working hours.

But as workers seek protection over their free time, some experts warn such a move could hurt Canadian productivity in today’s business environment.

“Right-to-disconnect legislation could have a debilitating impact on Canadian employers, particularly those which compete internationally since they may be required to respond in different time zones,” said Howard Levitt, senior partner with Toronto-based Levitt LLP, in an email interview.

“We no longer have a 9-to-5 work environment, but one that requires employees to be accessible to deal with not only emergencies, but regular workplace developments.”

The federal Liberal government is examining “right-to-disconnect” legislation as it works to update labour standards for federally-regulated fields, which include transportation and telecommunications. The debate has gained attention after France in 2017 gave employees the legal right to avoid work emails outside of working hours.

In a year-long consultation on changes to Canada’s federal labour code, 93 per cent of respondents said employees should have the right to refuse to respond to work-related communications outside of working hours.

Yet employers and employer organizations said being on-call is sometimes a requirement of workplaces, such as those that work on a national and international schedule. Of the respondents who said employees should not have the right to disconnect, 27 per cent said it was because business doesn’t stop at the end of the work day.

According to Bill Howatt, founder of Howatt HR Consulting, allowing employees a chance to step away from their devices and recharge will ultimately help businesses get the best work from their staff.

“We would have more productivity if people could enjoy their work, then turn off,” said Howatt, who recently worked as Morneau Shepell’s chief of research and development of workforce productivity. “My generation was all about if you work long, long, long and hard, hard, hard, you’ll get the promotion and get ahead.

“But the world is different now – it’s about working smart and efficiently to get ahead.”

For Mario Zelaya, founder and CEO of Bad Axe Throwing, an indoor entertainment company with more than 200 employees across North America, the key to productivity is not extending work hours beyond the typical 9-to-5 routine, but by ensuring people are fully engaged when they’re on the clock.

Zelaya said that Bad Axe employees are told from their first day on the job that they’re expected to refrain from personal social media use while working in order to avoid overtime.

“Essentially the unwritten rule is, don’t do any personal Facebook, Twitter or Instagram during the day and we’ll give you back your time and you’ll have the right to disconnect,” Zelaya said in a phone interview.

“A lot of people just don’t have proper work habits and work ethic, and their manager has passed down this standard norm that has zero productivity – it’s just about taking advantage of people.”

Indeed, some workplaces are already developing internal policies when it comes to after-hours work communications. Chantel Goldsmith, partner with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said being proactive can help businesses show their flexibility and improve employee morale. 

“You could get less claims for mental health issues, you have less people feeling stressed out. And it could result in less overtime claims,” Goldsmith said by phone. “If employee morale is up, then they will be more productive for you.” 

At the same time, Howatt emphasizes that implementing right-to-disconnect rules isn’t the only solution and that companies need to rework their workplace cultures.

“People start modeling each other, mirroring each other and because of a fear of losing their jobs, fear around looking good, wanting to fit in, and being team player, people will engage in these behaviours,” Howatt said. “It could be a right to be unplugged, but who told you to be plugged in the first place?”

While some industries may require after-hours work communications – such as RCMP officers needing to address critical emergencies – Howatt said managers need to establish clear boundaries for employees so that they don’t feel guilty for turning their devices off and spending time with family.

“It’s about setting the expectations and creating that culture,” Howatt said. “If they expect employees to do work off work hours, then employees should get paid for it.”