Silicon Valley firms are leading the way in corporate policy, while European countries like Germany are beginning to draw up laws to create a bonafide legal right to work from home.
Employers and governments around the world have been oscillating between full remote requirements to everyone-back-to-the-office to forever-flex schedules. Now, two years into the pandemic, working from home appears bound to be a feature of our current existence that will be with us — in some form — once COVID-19 is gone.
But even as companies experiment with different policies, others are pushing to see it translated into law — in other words, to make working from home a right.
The leading edge of the debate is undoubtedly in Europe, with a handful of countries considering changes to, or even already having altered, their labor laws in the wake of the first pandemic lockdowns.
Mandatory two days minimum
In Luxembourg, after a petition to recognize the right to telework was introduced in April 2020, the chamber of deputies published a new petition last month to make two days of remote work a week mandatory, Delano magazine reports; In Poland, where eight in 10 employees indicate hybrid work as their ideal choice, a new bill regarding remote work was introduced last May; while in Spain, a new law was passed in September 2020 to regulate home working.
The impediments of remote work can often extend well beyond manual labor.
But no country has yet gone as far as Germany, where Federal Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil recently announced plans to make the home office a legally protected part of German work culture. The new coalition government is currently drawing up a law that would provide employees with a legal right to work from home — granting employers the right to refuse only if there are legitimate “operational reasons.”The government’s announcement has raised questions about what “operational reasons” will actually mean in practice. Writing in German daily Die Welt, Gregor Thüsing, Director of the Institute for Labor Law at the University of Bonn, notes that the only example provided by Heil that would justify forced on-site work is industrial labor — which sets a very high bar for the ability of employers to demand that any white-collar employees come into the office.
Office is were the home is.
Data protection, stunted creativity
Thüsing suggests that the impediments of remote work can often extend well beyond manual labor, noting that operations can also be undermined by limited dialogue between employees, stunted creativity and — increasingly in our digital age — compromised data protection.
Of course, the always-connected internet reality also raises questions about the rights of workers in their off-hours, with Portugal passing a law last year that made it a crime to disturb employees when they’re not on the clock.
Still, on both fronts, the most crucial question might be whether countries can manage to regulate digital working rights without an overly bureaucratic postiche and runaway corporate costs.
Remote work is an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”
Following the introduction of Spain’s home-working law in 2020, El Pais reports that the new regulation — forcing companies to cover the cost of “all resources, equipment and tools” needed by a worker to carry out their job remotely — has incurred unmanageable costs for smaller companies.
Google and Facebook flex first
In the UK, reports last year that the government was planning on granting employees the right to request flexible working from the moment they start a job sparked controversy as businesses warned that such cumbersome legislation would cause corporate chaos.
In the U.S., major tech firms like Google and Facebook have been convinced by the pandemic experience that full flexibility is the best corporate policy, though as WIRED recently reported, some of those who choose full remote may see their pay cut.
Leaders in the U.S. banking and finance sector, instead, have pushed to force all employees back to the office as soon as the spread of the virus slows. Last winter, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said remote work is an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”
With labor rights in Africa and Asia even thinner than the U.S., those advocating legal protection for remote work will focus on advances in such countries as Germany, Spain and France — not to mention cutting-edge private-sector policies in Silicon Valley.
For once, it seems, European governments and U.S. Big Tech may actually be aligned.