- Remote work is here to stay as employees increasingly demand flexibility and organisations realise that they can save money by adopting hybrid work models.
- The shift to remote and hybrid work requires that governments, employers, and employees alike reevaluate existing policies and procedures.
- Issues such as insurance, the provision of essential work equipment, and expense policies may need to be reviewed.
In 2020, working remotely occurred almost overnight for millions of employees across Europe. Many employees who had previously been office-bound suddenly began working full-time from their homes.
For some, remote work brought additional benefits and even improved productivity. Others found themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of having to be ‘on call’ and lost any semblance of work-life balance they previously had.
Remote Work Is Here to Stay
According to an Owl Labs report State of Remote Work 2020 millions of people around the world report that they work remotely. Employers are recognising that remote work is here to stay but many remain unsure how this new reality will impact on their organisations and businesses.
The Economist (Special Report, April 10th, 2021) reported that prior to the COVID pandemic, Americans spent 5% of their working time remote from the office. By the spring of 2020, that figure had risen to 60%.
While it’s unlikely that the figure will remain at 60% post-COVID, the percentage of workers working remotely at least half of the time is likely to increase compared to pre-pandemic levels. This will be a result of more companies adopting a hybrid work arrangement moving forward.
Owl Labs Europe report found that 89% of European companies plan on having a hybrid workforce post-pandemic. The shift to hybrid work is not only a response to worker demands; organisations have realised over the past year and a half that hybrid work can help companies save money.
“Nearly two-thirds of European business leaders reported that hybrid working makes companies more profitable, with Enterprise businesses (1000+ employees) most likely to think so at 73% in comparison to SMBs at 55%,” Owl Labs found.
Whether companies adopt a remote-first or a hybrid-first approach to work, the reality is that there is a massive shift happening in the way people work. This is leaving many legal, and practical ramifications for governments, employers, and employees to grapple with.
Rights and Responsibilities
How can this new legion of remote workers ensure that their rights are protected and their wellbeing continues to be assured? Do these employees understand their rights and conversely, do employers know what their responsibilities towards remote employees should be?
The EU Joint Research Centre argues that “policies to support the transition to more widespread remote work will need to carefully consider the potential benefits and costs for productivity, job quality, and workers’ work-life balance and mental health.”
For example, there is no legal definition of ‘working from home’ and employment health and safety laws in the UK do not differentiate between working from home and working in the office. Europe has a voluntary teleworking (remote working) agreement but this is not ratified in law Framework Agreement on Telework 2002.
How do the rules relate to hybrid work and the future of work in Europe?
The Europe Edition of Owl Labs Remote Work report found that a significant proportion of Europe’s Small and Medium-sized Businesses are considering a permanent shift to hybrid working.
However, alternating between remote work and office work will require a significant shift in policy. Employee preferences are driving this shift, but employers in Europe also realise that they have to raise their game and meet the demands of workers if they want to recruit the best talent.
With this in mind, employers will have to redesign their HR policies and practices to ensure that nothing is overlooked. Issues such as which days an employee is expected (if at all) in the office and how often they can work from home need to be agreed upon.
Employers will also have to ensure that they continue to develop the careers of their employees, albeit from a distance. This will require a certain level of technological investment (for instance, enabling employees to use the latest communication and messaging tools). Unfortunately, only 38% of Europe’s SMBs have shown a commitment to investing in new technology thus far.
Additional issues such as taxes, equipment, and stipends need to be taken into account. For example, let’s remember Deutsche Bank’s proposition last year that people choosing to work from home despite their company providing a permanent desk should pay a “privilege tax”, at 5% of their salary. If, on the other hand, companies do not offer permanent desks, they should pay instead.
Which countries are doing well at regulating remote work?
According to the latest report from EuroNews, there are several European countries leading the way in terms of regulating remote work:
Portugal – Top of the leaderboard with their Green Paper on the Future of Work. The paper aims to regulate new ways of working and respond to the challenges of classifying labour relations in relation to hybrid work.
Germany – Made it mandatory for workplaces to offer employees the opportunity to work remotely as long as there are “no compelling operational reasons for not doing so”.
Ireland – With its large remote working population, Ireland plans to make hybrid working available to employees in all relevant sectors by next year. As in Germany, employers will need a good excuse to decline a remote-working request. Companies will also be required t provide safe and suitable equipment for home offices.
Russia – As in Ireland, employers in Russia must provide the necessary equipment for remote workers to effectively conduct their work from home and cover the cost of this equipment.
Other European countries such as Spain and Greece are tabling plans to redesign their labour legislation around remote working – in other countries nothing has been proposed or implemented to date.
The Risks to Employees
Employers are duty-bound to carry out a risk assessment of all work conducted remotely. Employees can conduct the assessment alone but the responsibility for the contents of the final agreement lies solely with the employer.
The employer is responsible for the protection of the occupational health and safety of staff working remotely in the same way that they are responsible for office-based employees.
Even though the employer is not present in the home, this is a duty that cannot be delegated. The responsibility of the employee is to ensure that they cooperate with their employers on all health and safety issues that could affect them when working remotely.
What are some of the risks when working remotely?
- An uncomfortable workstation
- Overuse of screens due to video meetings
- Poor quality equipment
- Lone working (could cause feelings of isolation)
- Working long hours (could lead to burnout) and insufficient time management (a lack of scheduled breaks, for instance)
- Poor ventilation
- Inadequate lighting
- A lack of space
- A reduction in time management
Research by the European Foundation of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) indicated that people regularly working from home were twice as likely to surpass the maximum 48 hours working week (read the Eurofound Report here).
Remote working has afforded employees several benefits, such as greater flexibility around hours of work. On the other hand, it is often harder to strike a healthy work life balance when there is nobody around to tell you to ‘switch off’.
According to Eurofound this new culture of employees being ‘constantly available’ could lead to greater feelings of burnout, heightened anxiety, and even depression. Employees who are skilled at managing their own time may thrive on remote working but what about those who struggle without the structure and routine that office working can provide?
Remote working policies should be followed in the same way as office-based work, although adjustments need to be made. Issues such as insurance, the provision of essential work equipment, and expense policies may all need to be reviewed by the employer. Policies around discrimination and complaints procedures apply in the same way to remote employees as they do to office-based staff.
It’s Time to update Policies and Procedures
Different countries will have a range of advisory services that employers can use for tailored support around remote working. In the UK, for example, The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) have a sample remote working policy ACAS Checklist (UK).
The bottom line is that employers who are willing and able to make remote work a possibility need to work collaboratively with employees to ensure that everyone’s rights and responsibilities are protected.
If remote working is to succeed as a present and future work practice then it is essential that policies and procedures are continuously updated, adapted, and robustly followed by all involved. Employers need to adequately resource their remote employees so that they can continue to be productive and successful regardless of where their agreed place of work may be.