There’s no doubt anymore that the global COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed how employees work, whereby remote working has become the norm. But how does remote working impact workers, employers and society in general? And what are implications for policymakers and regulators? A very recent study addresses these questions. This blog article includes key insights from this study.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) is responsible for employment and all aspects of social policy including working conditions, social security, social inclusion and social protection; the free movement of workers and pensioners; workers’ rights; health and safety measures at the workplace and more. In order to identify possible policy actions at EU level, the Committee commissioned a study that analyzed recent trends in teleworking, its impacts on workers, employers, and society, and the challenges for policy- making. The results of the have now been published in a report.
In this article we use the terms “teleworking” and “remote working” interchangeably. For many workers, remote working during the coronavirus pandemic meant home working.
Remote Working Is Here To Stay
The report examines the fast adoption of teleworking, and concludes:
- Broad adoption: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive increase in the use of home telework, across a wide range of sectors, including sectors where there has been no remote working prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Digital Divide – no equal opportunities: The adoption rate hasn’t been equal for all. An often cited problem is the increase in inequalities due to the digital divide. The study found that remote working arrangements are still predominantly used by white-collar, highly-educated workers with strong digital skills. Currently teleworkable jobs tend to be more concentrated in cities and urban centers than in smaller towns, suburbs and rural areas. During the COVID-19 crisis, 61% of those living in cities had access to telework, as opposed to 41% of those living in small towns. This difference is partially due to lacking infrastructure outside cities: 10% of households in rural areas are still not covered by any fixed network and 41% by any fast broadband technology. Internet access also varies between cities (92%), towns and suburbs (89% for both) and rural areas (86%). These disparities are likely to be further challenged in the next few years, as people living in Europe’s main cities will have the opportunity to switch to 5G internet.
- Remote working is here to stay: The study concludes that also after returning to post-COVID “normality” (whatever the “new normal” may be), the extensive use of teleworking is expected to continue, although not on a full-time basis. Hybrid forms are more likely to prevail, combining remote and office working.
Main benefits of teleworking for workers include:
- greater time and place flexibility;
- enhanced job autonomy;
- improved work-life balance;
- reduced commuting time.
The study acknowledges that remote working can also contribute to equal opportunities in the workforce. It may improve employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, older workers, women with care responsibilities and people living in rural or peripheral areas. However, to be fully grasped, these opportunities require a number of enabling conditions, e.g. child-care facilities and services, digital skills training, access to adequate and affordable broadband and ICT equipment.
On the down side, the higher flexibility and autonomy associated with remote working also has a down side. It often comes hand in hand with greater work intensity and longer working hours, with negative effects on workers’ work-life balance, especially in the case of women with children. Long working hours and the sense of isolation associated, together with the increased use of online monitoring and surveillance methods, may also negatively affect the mental health of teleworkers, besides raising privacy issues. At the same time, a lack of space and ergonomically sound equipment at the worker’s remote work location (often: home) may increase the physical health risks of teleworkers. Finally, the report points out that women teleworking from home also face increased risks of domestic violence.
There have already been discussions about remote work’s impact on the market for commercial real estate. As many offices have been closed for a long period during the pandemic, will companies seek to shrink their physical offices rather than expand them, and save costs along the way? Remote work arrangements may indeed reduce companies’ production costs. Maybe more importantly, the report concludes that remote working improves workers’ productivity, as long as a certain threshold of working hours and work intensity is not exceeded. Ultimately, the effects of teleworking on companies depend on the capacity of managers to effectively engage and motivate teleworkers. This requires a major shift in organizational cultures towards managing by results (as opposed to inputs, e.g. office attendance) and establishing trust- based relationships, which may be quite challenging in some more traditional sectors and companies where the company culture prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was characterized by tight control and little trust and empowerment.
At societal level, positive effects of teleworking may relate to the expected lower carbon emissions and to more balanced spatial development.
As far as energy savings considered, the report points out that the energy savings impact of teleworking is rather modest given possible rebound effects. Examples of rebound effects are:
- The number of non-work trips increased by the equivalent of about 25% of the distance saved from teleworking
- For short car commutes or those using public transport for home-work commuting, teleworking could increase CO2 emissions due to extra residential energy consumption.
- teleworking may also result in greater (or more intense) use of digital technologies, which can, in turn, increase Greenhouse gases emissions.
The report points out positive impact on spatial development. It posits that there is wide recognition that the explosion of teleworking following the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak is likely to have a long-lasting impact on the spatial distribution of work, also in peripheral geographical locations. Let us explain this point. In its recent report, The future of work after COVID-19, consulting firm McKinsey & Company concludes that “20–25% of workers in advanced economies could work remotely 3+ days a week on a long-term basis”. Since remote working provides workers with much greater spatial flexibility, these may opt to work remotely from home (e.g. in the suburbs) as opposed to regularly commuting to the urban/city centers where most offices and business activity are usually based. This will bring upon a re-distribution of workers and companies from urban centers and metropolitan areas towards suburban, peripheral and rural areas.
On the negative side, teleworking may contribute to the greater fragmentation of the workforce, the individualization of the employment relationship, the shifting onto workers of the costs of working from home (e.g. ICT equipment, workstations, energy and connectivity costs). It may also contribute to the emergence of new employment and social inequalities, between those who can telework and those who cannot, because they are employed in non–teleworkable sectors/occupations, or lack the required digital skills or equipment, or have no access to a broadband connection.
Current EU and National Legislation
Is there a need for new EU legislation concerning remote working?
The report highlights that although at European level there are no specific legislative measures targeting teleworking, there is robust legislation on working conditions that can be applied to these new working arrangements, e.g. the Working Time Directive, the Work-life Balance Directive, the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive, and the European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work. In addition, many EU initiatives and policies address the digital divide, support equal opportunities in access to telework, and address territorial inequalities. The European Social Partners’ Framework agreements on telework (2002) and on Digitization (2020) also cover many teleworking related issues.
Many Member States have also introduced policies and laws addressing teleworking. National approaches are quite varied, reflecting the great diversity in terms of institutional, legislative, industrial relations, cultural contexts, and digital development. 21 of the 27 EU Member States have introduced legislation directly addressing teleworking or regulating aspects of such work. The remaining countries either leave the regulation of teleworking to collective bargaining (as in the Scandinavian countries), or are adopting “softer” measures, e.g. codes of conduct or guidelines (as in Ireland).
Despite these differences, the report concludes that in most EU countries, collective agreements and practices in large companies are the main instruments currently shaping the use of teleworking in practice.
The report points out some concerns that need to be addressed:
- ensure workers’ right to disconnect;
- address the risks for workers’ privacy and mental health associated with invasive forms of surveillance and monitoring;
- provide adequate child-care services and support the work-life balance of teleworkers;
- address the digital divide and provide the necessary equipment and broadband access to all workers.
How Should EU Regulators Respond?
There has been a debate among EU stakeholders on whether there is need for new EU regulations on teleworking or whether it is sufficient to update (or just enforce) existing ones.
Numerous stakeholders were interviewed for the study. Some of them said that the implications of remote working for work intensity, work-life balance, and health and safety can be addressed by the proper application (and/or enforcement) of existing EU regulations and policy instruments, as long as they are revised in order to address the specificities of teleworking. Other interviewees however point out the need for a more comprehensive European directive on telework, including minimum requirements for workers’ health and safety, the right to disconnect, and the establishment of specific workers’ data protection and privacy rights.
The right to disconnect has emerged, primarily in Europe, as a proposed human right. It allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks – such as phone calls, emails and other digital communication – outside working hours.
In addition, the EU social partners call for a greater role for collective agreements in relation to: workers’ right to telework and to disconnect; equal pay and treatment (also in terms of working hours) between teleworkers and other workers; company support for digital skills training and suitable teleworking equipment; limitations to invasive surveillance and protection of workers’ privacy rights; safeguards against cyber-harassment/violence.
Policy strategies should increase social inclusion of currently marginalized groups and territories, and mitigate any negative effects. They should support the (digital) upskilling of the population, and ensuring widespread access to a good quality and affordable broadband and suitable ICT equipment. They should also support the creation of neighborhood co-working spaces and child-care services, and the re-design of housing, mobility and spatial planning policies.
- Five Practices for Successful Leadership Through Crisis: The Culturally Adaptive Company
- How Will The World Be Different After COVID-19? Challenging The Socially-Constructed “Normal”
- The future of work after COVID-19, McKinsey & Company, February 2021
- Teleworkability and the COVID-19 crisis: a new digital divide?