Dr. Opeyemi Akanbi on the evolving nature of work and the ‘right to disconnect’ law

Dr. Opeyemi Akanbi on the evolving nature of work and the ‘right to disconnect’ law

Her ground-breaking work at The Creative School addresses the dangerously blurring lines between work and home

Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University)’s Dr. Opeyemi Akanbi is an Assistant Professor of Professional Communication at The Creative School. Having joined the university in 2020, her research in labour and technology has garnered praise for its timely insights—specifically, in relation to the nature of work, privacy and the political economy of digital media.

The Creative School offers research, education and innovation in media and communication, design and the creative industries, spanning across nine professional schools. Renowned for its distinctive and vibrant culture of scholarly research and creative activities, its research centres and innovation spaces make up a dynamic ecosystem in which faculty and students work closely with community and industry partners to engage in path-breaking initiatives dedicated to real-world transformation.

In conversation with Toronto Life, Dr. Akanbi discusses the new wave of remote work, building a culture of work-life balance and the recently passed ‘right to disconnect’ law in Ontario, (the first province in the country to do so), which establishes the right employees have to be free from having to respond to emails, telephone calls, texts or electronic messages outside of work hours.

How would you describe your work for those unfamiliar with the discipline?

There are two different approaches to this field: one emphasizes the communicative aspects of the law, while the other focuses on laws within communications. My work tends to lean more toward the latter. Communications today, especially communication technologies like social media and smart devices, are more significant than ever. My key focus is to explore how the law keeps up, or doesn’t keep up, with the fast-paced innovation and advancements in communication.

How has the pandemic most influenced digital integration and remote work into the workplace?

Before the pandemic, there weren’t many people considering remote work, and the subset of workers that did work remotely were seen as outliers in some sense. There wasn’t a push for legislation to protect their time and privacy in the same way that we do now. As a majority began balancing this at-home work space, organizations have been forced to create policy and start thinking critically about what it means when our employees don’t have a proper separation between home and work spaces.

What are the risks of employee privacy and personal boundaries being ignored?

One of the challenges revolves around an absence of control. If workers are unable to clearly identify where the lines are drawn, then certain actions in your personal life can affect your work life and vice versa. With employers gleaning more into our lives with social media, this rolls into concerns around free speech or simply the ability to let your guard down.

Can you explain how Ontario’s ‘Right To Disconnect’ law addresses this and what it means for workers in the province?

It’s crucial that organizations think carefully about what kind of culture they want to promote, and for workers to know what they’re signing up for. This law is more about getting organizations to specifically declare the expectations they’re placing on their workers availability. The challenge is that they don’t always pack a punch, so to speak. This policy aims to achieve more transparency around when it is acceptable to be ‘on the clock,’ but what it’s not going to do for workers is help them get less work hours or shorter work days. What it should do is impel organizations to form policies clarifying expectations around being connected to work. There is an important caveat, however; there’s a difference between what happens in that policy document and the actual culture in that workplace.

Where professional communication comes in is allowing us to really think carefully about the way we want to structure those policies in a very effective way that can speak to the resulting culture.

Do you believe the lines between work and pleasure have become blurred?

In some ways yes, but in other ways I don’t think they have become any more blurred than they always have. I think that digital media and our devices have made it easier for this generation of workers to adopt an ‘always-on’ culture. At the end of the day, everyone is different and everyone holds different tolerances to how much they are willing to be flexible. People who don’t want to be disturbed after working hours absolutely should have the right to assure they won’t be reprimanded for that. I’m confident that both organizations and workers are beginning to negotiate some middle ground and developing some flexibility in workplace standards.

Do you think it’s most effective to put the responsibility on employers or the government?

I think most effectively, companies need to create policy and really develop an environment that can allow a cultural balance to emerge—it’s a communication issue that no one but the employers can really control. The government can promote it, and encourage it, but not implement it. What’s most important is that we normalize these conversations so that workers can also recognize the imbalance and negotiate something that better reflects their needs.

What areas of research are you focused on now?

Most of my work now is focused on the topic of trust. My independent research at The Creative School questions how members of the public form impressions about the companies that they engage with on a day-to-day basis, and how they develop trust.

Click here to learn more about The Creative School and their impactful work both inside and outside the classroom.