Our thoughts on the world of employment law - and beyond.

Auf weidersehen, email

Its mid-August and the holiday season is well and truly upon us. The lucky few have been sunning themselves on beaches and more often than not emails are met with the all-too-familiar bounce back:

"Thank you for your email. I am out of the office on annual leave, but will respond to your email upon my return".

But try emailing employees at German car manufacturer Daimler and you will be met with a different response:

"I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact X or Y if it's really important, or resend the email after I'm back in the office. Danke Schoen."

Deleted! Gone!  Putting the onus firmly back on the sender to decide what to do next. 

Daimler's approach might seem like a breath of fresh air for those who are about to return from holiday and are met with that sinking feeling that there will be a glut of emails to wade through upon returning to our desks. There's nothing that quite dampens the holiday spirit like a full inbox is there? Many employees may well wish that their employer would adopt a similar policy. But would this approach work for employers in the UK, not least in an economic climate where businesses are still having to go all out to demonstrate stellar customer service?

A bit of background - the move follows new guidelines issued in France where workers in some sectors have been ordered to ignore work emails when they go home, a topic covered in further detail in one of our previous blog posts.

Undoubtedly, taking time off on holiday is a much needed respite from the day-to-day grind, and is of course a requirement under the Working Time Regulations 1998. Holiday policies often encourage employees to take an uninterrupted break of 10 consecutive working days. But in a world that is saturated by technology, where we can be contacted at any time, anywhere, it inevitably takes a while to switch-off. Here at Farrers, unnamed partners have been known to check their BlackBerry whilst on the ski slopes; it seems that even at an altitude of 3000 meters above sea level, we still struggle to disconnect from work.

When the auto-delete policy first launched, Daimler explained that the aim of the project was to maintain the balance between the work and home life of employees so as to safeguard their performance in the long run. I'm sure that many of you will agree that the 21st century workplace can sometimes be a stressful place. Pressure is part and parcel of work and can help to motivate employees. But excessive pressure can lead to stress which can affect performance and is costly to employers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) Absence Management Survey for last year indicated that stress remains one of the most common causes of both long and short-term sickness for employees.

Under health and safety legislation, more specifically the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This is also an implied term of every employment contract. Employers can be liable for personal injury suffered by their employees as a result of work-related stress. Taken alongside other measures to effectively manage stress, protecting employees from the emails piling up and feeling swamped upon their return to the workplace should help employers comply with this duty.

But balanced against the need to protect employee welfare, is customer demand. Automatically deleting emails whilst an employee is out of the office is all well and good, but telling customers that their email has been deleted rather than dealt with, could potentially undermine relationships that have taken years to build.

Another point worth commenting on is that Daimler's policy is optional, the reason being that automatically deleting emails may work for some employees, but not for others. The idea behind this is understandable: some employees may feel that auto-delete simply isn't feasible given their position. In any event, until a Tribunal decides otherwise, it's unlikely that any employee (regardless of seniority) can hide behind a "but your email was automatically deleted" defence.

Although retaining personal choice allows for flexibility, in practice, it is problematic. Sending mixed messages can cause difficulty and confusion. From a reputational point of view, it could be better for employers to decide whether all employees' emails are automatically deleted when out of the office or none at all. Until auto-delete becomes common practice in the UK (which is unlikely to be anytime soon), employers would do well to adopt a consistent approach.

So perhaps next time before you pack your swimsuit, spare a thought for whether out of office is really out of mind.

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