The rise of remote work in the COVID era and beyond

With remote work comes significant challenges for employers around the globe. How is remote work impacting your company?

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by Beatriz García Fernández-Viagas

Remote work before COVID-19: an occasional pattern

Remote work arrangements are not new. On the contrary, more than 20 years ago the benefits of this form of performing work triggered the adoption of international standards such as the ILO’s Home Work Convention, 1996 (No. 177) and the Home Work Recommendation, 1996 (No. 184). Both standards are aimed at improving the situation of homeworkers. At EU level, the European social partners –including the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), among others– signed a Framework Agreement on Telework in 2002. The agreement was created to define a reference frame for the use of telework that meets the needs for flexibility and security shared by employees and companies.

Despite these developments, working from home was not that common among employed workers before the COVID-19 outbreak. Taking the EU countries as an example, only 5.4% of those employed worked regularly from home during the last 10 years prior to the pandemic according to Eurostat. In addition, the use of telework varied significantly across sectors (being more prevalent among IT and communication workers) and countries (with northern Europe taking the lead).

The beginning of a new “remote” work era?

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the rules of the game. Instead of being optional, and a work “perk,” there have been mandatory requirements for companies to implement remote working arrangements. Working at home has never been so widespread and has proven to be a key element to allow business continuity and save people’s jobs during this health crisis.

There are clear benefits to remote work for employers: reduced overhead, increased productivity and for workers:

  • reduced commuting time and costs,
  • flexible working hours, and
  • higher work-life balance.

There are environmental benefits:

  • less air pollution, and
  • reduced traffic.

Will these advantages strengthen the use of remote work in the long term, once the pandemic is over?

Although the remote working strategies implemented by employers following COVID-19 containment measures are meant to be temporary, it seems likely that home working will remain more prevalent compared to pre-pandemic levels and some companies are adopting remote work as a permanent policy.

As an example, a recent US survey from getAbstract shows that 43% of respondents want to work remotely more often after the pandemic, while 45% of the employers are actively considering or open to implementing a working from home policy in the future. Similarly, over three-quarters of EU employees would like to continue working from home at least occasionally in the future according to Eurofund’s e-survey ‘Living, working and COVID-19’ carried out last July. In addition, many countries are currently issuing new rules aimed at regulating different aspects related to the use of telework by companies in the long run (such as Spain, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Finland or Belgium, to name a few), therefore consolidating the trend towards remote working.

What does “remote work” mean for employers?

If remote work is here to stay, it seems vital for companies to assess the challenges and understand the obligations associated with this modern form of organizing work.

Remote work is an “at will” arrangement. In non-pandemic times, one of the most relevant aspects of any remote work employment relationship is its voluntary and reversible character. This means that companies and workers can only shift to telework following a mutual agreement (usually in written form), and that either party can terminate the telework contract during an initial period of its execution.

Employers are still responsible for employee health and safety. Employers remain responsible for the protection of the occupational health and safety of their employees working from home or other non-office locations. As a result, employers have to take into account the risks related to remote work in the risk assessment and planning of preventive measures. In addition, employers must inform remote workers of the risks arising from telework (particularly with regard to visual display units and ergonomics). Companies must train remote workers on the appropriate performance of their tasks and assist them in case of difficulties.

Employers have to equip workers with the tools to do their jobs. Employers have to provide their employees working from home with all necessary means, equipment and tools. In many cases, they must also cover the costs incurred by remote workers for the performance of their work (such as in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain).

Although companies are generally allowed to implement means of control over telework, such control measures should not compromise teleworkers’ right to privacy and data protection. Moreover, many countries require employers to respect remote workers’ resting times and right to disconnection. Finally, teleworkers are granted the same employment conditions and collective rights as comparable workers in the company’s premises.

Embrace the change

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has confronted the world with unprecedented challenges. Although the full consequences of this global health crisis are unknown, it seems likely that this pandemic will impact our ways of living and working in the long term. Certainly, this situation provides us a new window of opportunity to explore more flexible working modalities. Once thing is clear: embracing change has never been so crucial for both employers and employees. Employers would be wise to understand their obligations for providing a safe, and productive, remote working environment for employees.

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