Civil servants will have the right to disconnect as from October before it becomes an EU directive, Times of Malta has learnt.

Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar said government workers will be given this right as from October, when its remote working policy comes into force. 

The option to disconnect refers to a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from participating in work-related communications, such as phone calls, emails, WhatsApp messages and other messages outside their working hours.

The directive, which was spearheaded by Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba, was approved by the European Parliament earlier this year but it could take a year until it is transposed into EU law and a longer time for individual member states to transpose it into national legislation.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only upset social life across Europe, but it has also dramatically changed the way people work. With more working from home and needing to be constantly reachable, the boundaries between work and private life have become increasingly blurred.

Lawmakers believe that the need for employees to be available via smartphone or email around the clock is detrimental to one’s mental health and well-being, and that workers should be allowed to be offline without suffering employer retribution as a result.

Cognisant of the effects this was having on workers, Cutajar said the government wanted to lead the way to give this right to disconnect during non-core and beyond contact hours.

Allowing a transition period of 18 months so we can train people

There are also cases, such as if the contract of employment specifies otherwise or a worker benefits from an allowance to cover an irregular schedule of work, when this right cannot apply.

This right forms part of a new remote working policy for the public service which gives civil servants the possibility to work away from the office.

Cutajar said the policy follows a pilot project which started in 2019 and which continued throughout the pandemic when more services were being delivered virtually as government employees shifted to working from home.

He said that although the policy enters into force on October 1, there will be a transition period of 18 months to shift from the existing teleworking system to the new remote working policy.

This will also enable the necessary changes in equipment and training.

Cutajar said heads of department are receiving applications from employees who wish to engage in remote working.

Applications will be assessed by the heads of department according to the employee’s job performance and skills, as well as whether the nature of their job allows them to move away from office set-ups.

The core hours are established by the head of department with a view to facilitating the day-to-day operations of remote working teams. Contact hours are set hours when remote workers may be requested to be available.

During the contact and core hours, employees are expected to remain accessible by phone, e-mail and any other official means of communication.

“We are allowing a transition period of 18 months so that we can train people and departments can purchase the equipment needed to offer remote working,” Cutajar said.

“By the end of the year, we will have 15 remote working spaces across the island where employees can book their slots because not everyone wants to work from home.

“This is all based in feedback we received from workers who had to work from home during the pandemic,” Cutajar added.

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