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No after-hours email legislation for Hong Kong, experts say

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New legislation in France gives employees the right to disconnect. As of January 1, companies with more than 50 employees must negotiate with their staff a clear policy on after-hour work emails.

The actual impact of the legislation is debatable, since the legislation does not come with any legal sanctions should companies fail to adhere to it. Additionally, forcing employers to agree on a policy with their staff arguably still leaves them in a fairly powerful position.

Essentially, during the negotiation, staff will tell the company they’d like official permission to ignore work emails outside of standard working hours, to which the company will reply they can’t have it. End of discussion.

What the law has achieved, is start a global discussion on employees’ right to switch off, something that may seem unfathomable to some Hongkongers working in a city notorious for its long working hours. Curious to know how some of Hong Kong’s employment experts view the issue, Human Resources magazine asked three of them to weigh in.

Q: Would you expect Hong Kong to ever follow France’s example and introduce similar legislation?

Scott Thomson, COO Links International: “Given that HK is one of the freest economies in the world and has some of the highest levels of overtime in the world, legislative change is probably a long way off for now!

Based on our experience in HK, an initiative like this is more likely to be driven by the business community before legislation is enacted.  There are a number of international companies in Hong Kong that already push employees’ rights to their free time. For example, Telstra included “We work flexibly at Telstra. I’m sending this message now because it suits me, but I don’t expect that you will read, respond to or action it outside of regular hours.” in their email signatures.”

Willie Cheng, head of people at Asia Miles: “I don’t think so. Hong Kong is currently on the path toward Standard Working Hours, rather than following France’s example.”

Julia Gorham, partner and head of employment, Asia at DLA Piper:  “I cannot see Hong Kong adopting similar legislation. Hong Kong is still in the middle of a long running debate over standard working hours which is far behind the European position and until that is resolved it is unlikely we would see any more wide-ranging protections for employees being considered.

There is nothing to stop Hong Kong legislating for email use, but I see no legal or economic driver for it to do so. Asian economies’ success in attracting businesses to have their workforces in the region are partly predicated on the long hours cultures and work ethic of employees. Creating legislation that may impact this efficiency, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty globally, would potentially damage market share.

Q: Do you see any benefits for companies to introduce an after-hours policy?

Scott Thomson: “It’s critical that employees have their own personal time so that they can rest, recover and come back to work with energy and ultimately enjoy what they do. We also need to balance this with ensuring that we can provide clients in differing time zones with a high level of service, so having clear expectations here is key.

In terms of setting a policy, an employer’s expectations will depend on the industry, roles, country, time zones, and more, so there is no universal guideline that will work best for all companies.”

Willie Cheng: “Work-life balance is the right trend to follow and is has been shown to be highly regarded by Millennials in lots of engagement surveys. Companies need to balance the needs of employees and the business, especially when operating as part of a global organisation.”

Julia Gorham: “The best approach, in the absence of statutory guidance, is likely to be providing internal guidelines to staff and developing a culture of respect amongst employees regarding out of hours’ time.

Guidance could include greater use of pre-timed email sending which could be better used by many organisations so that emails even if prepared out of hours are only sent during working hours.

Overarching all of this of course is the need for most growing businesses for their people to be readily contactable for urgent matters.  No policies or guidance should be adopted that stop that happening, but stopping people calling about non-urgent matters on auspicious days and weekends will make staff more open to dealing with urgent matters when they do arise.”

ALSO READ: Are 50-hour work weeks really necessary?

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