The U.S. is moving towards something of a nationwide legal right to disconnect from work for much of the week and become available for “unproductive work.” The term “unproductive work” doesn’t capture its full variety. No one knows for sure what “unproductive work” is. People will define it. “Cleaning windows” may be unproductive. Or “changing the oil.” It may also mean “ordering a burrito.” Another might be “chewing gum.”
Today, though, here in the U.S., a company called Ebay believes it has found the right definition. Ebay forbids its workers from using their employer’s chatbot to order items online. No, seriously.
The Seattle area company sees the chatbot as a potential way to cut down on worker distractedness and encourage employee dedication. For example, Ebay wants to encourage all employees to buy homes, since it’s a sign of employee commitment. “Employees benefit from being the main driver of the company’s sales and perks like homes, retirement accounts, and performance bonuses,” Ebay explains. The company’s move to ban workers from calling and checking in on a chatbot doesn’t happen overnight. Employees have to accept a modification to their work hours.
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There has been talk about the positive impact that simply stopping use of a chatbot had on customer support in China.
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The reason for choosing to pick this fight is because there is a risk that talk about distracted people having it easy can be used to support sweeping initiatives to bring back minimum wage laws, mandatory paid family leave, and socialized medicine.
Businesses have a right to set their own values and policies that encourage workers to work more efficiently. A company could even encourage workers to exercise their freedoms. For example, they could take up the standard Thich Nhat Hanh calls “unconditional compassion” and force their workers to get up from their desks every fifteen minutes and drink a water or drink soup.
Meaningful work is not the same as unproductive work. As we move into a digitally driven era, though, employees will have many ways to do the work that they most need to do. Sometimes they will be able to do so without doing it at the workplace. From a more ambitious viewpoint, workers may be compelled to do necessary work at home, at the gym, or wherever they feel like their passions and rest are best served.
The U.S. also has the option of joining other countries that have adopted this position. In Britain, an initiative called “Allow Us to disconnect” encourages businesses and other entities to set rules of the road on the use of personal electronic devices during work hours. In Australia, two successive governments imposed a 30-minute break in office time for people to get some sleep or take a walk.
In Canada, however, a federal minister last fall introduced a bill to allow people to disconnect from work. Federal Minister of Employment and Social Development, Patty Hajdu, argued that “managing the modern workplace is increasingly coming down to agreeing to disagree.”
The U.S. has three important advantages in this dispute. First, it has the biggest company in the world. Second, its government spends more money on workforce training than anywhere else. Third, while we may feel left out when some Canadian legislators push forward the agenda of organized labor, every organization that is making the case for fewer personal electronic devices in the workplace is making the case for unions.
We must question the right of labor to control our private lives, but we must not ignore the fact that workers, especially young workers, have needs that have nothing to do with work. We have the right to get those needs met wherever they are. We must demand that the right to unskilled labor be embraced in Canada. We must demand that Canadian government give us the freedom we need to work just as we want.
Stephen Quinn is the host of Open Mike Radio and author of the novel Salty Dog.