The world’s largest work-from-home experiment that is Covid-19 accelerates the transition to a new era of remote-only companies. Recent news abounds with company announcements of extended work-from-home policies, with some deciding to allow employees to work from home permanently. Twitter, Facebook, Shopify and Coinbase are examples of companies publicly announcing a long-term shift to permanent telework while claiming that office centricity is part of the past. This change comes with inherent risks for workers.
While teleworkers enjoy all the same rights as other workers as per the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC), enforcing the rights may become even more challenging with increasingly virtual workplaces. Another risk is the gradual disappearance of the physical workplace, and with it of the notion of choice for remote work. The European Framework Agreement on Telework signed in 2002 covers the voluntary character of telework arrangements, but is of limited legal importance when it comes to regulating companies going remote-only. The text stipulates that teleworking may be engaged subsequently as a voluntary arrangement or may be required as part of a worker's initial job description. Considering the latter case, all it takes for companies to enforce permanent telework is to not renew current employment contracts and gradually update job descriptions.
The trend toward permanent telework that the major internet companies and digital platforms are driving can be explained by two factors: cost savings and business resilience. The primary savings are the result of increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and better disaster preparedness. This last item of expenditure brings the second reason. Many employers are starting to recognize the potential of telework as mean to enhance business resilience in the face of disruptive situations, such as a pandemic.
Alarmingly, research shows that the implementation of full-time teleworking arrangements is not in line with employees’ preferences. During the lockdown, only 13% of European workers were willing to work from home daily if there were no Covid-19 restrictions (Eurofound 2020). Another recent study highlights that 27% of teleworkers see remote work as a constraint, of which 72% are in a state of psychological distress (Anact 2020). These figures underline the potential for harm embodied in remote-only jobs, and further stress the paramount importance of framing telework as a discretionary and complementary option made available to the worker.
Photo: Jack Sparrow