Remote work in Europe before and after the pandemic

While many effects are still unclear, or the result of processes that are still ongoing, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the world of work. Together with six other EDJNet newsrooms, Openpolis looked at the current state of play, focusing on remote work.

Published On: March 28th, 2023

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Covid has had a significant impact on many areas of people’s daily lives, and work has been no exception: from the temporary suspension of specific activities to the growing collective awareness of the importance of “essential” jobs, from health risks in the workplace to the still ill-defined risks associated with remote work – including the question of separating work and private life in the home. The burden has been particularly heavy for women, who are still considered – due to gender stereotypes – the main carers in the family.

But if the pandemic has really changed the world of work, are these changes permanent, real, revolutions? Together with five other newsrooms in the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), under the direction of Alternatives économiques, we tried to answer this question by investigating a number of areas where the pandemic has had an impact on the world of employment. These include the relationship between supply and demand, and remote work, which is now firmly established in many professions. We also looked at the central role of essential workers and online platforms. The latter have seen unparalleled growth during the pandemic. We analysed the most recent data to illustrate the changes that, a year or two after the lockdown, have left clear marks.

While it is difficult to assess the situation so soon after the pandemic, we have found that in all cases Covid has led to changes within the world of work. However, these are mostly still ongoing or made of closely intertwined dynamics. Therefore, in this analysis, we have chosen to isolate one element, the one that has represented the greatest novelty especially in Italy, although it is not certain if this novelty will be permanent: remote work.

Remote work, one of the main changes brought by the pandemic

As Eurostat points out, the increase in remote workers has been one of the major occurrences of this time. Remote work already existed before the outbreak of the pandemic, but was severely restricted, especially in certain areas, such as rural ones.

On average, in the European Union, people who regularly or occasionally worked from home made up 14.4 percent of all employed persons in 2019. Two years later, after the hardest lockdown phase, the share had risen by almost 10 percentage points.

If we only consider those who regularly work remotely, the figure rose from 5.5 percent in 2019 to 13.5 percent in 2021.

However, the situation varies greatly from country to country. The highest figures appear in north-western European countries, while the lowest are in the eastern part of the continent.

The Netherlands has the highest share of employed persons who report working either habitually or occasionally from home (53.8%), followed by Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland, with shares of over 40 percent. At the bottom of the list are some Eastern and Central European states – in particular Romania and Bulgaria with less than 10 percent. On the regional level, Stockholm stands out, where in 2021 more than 40 percent of respondents say they usually work from home.

Ireland, on the other hand, is the EU country with the sharpest increase between 2019 and 2021 (+19.4 percentage points). In no case was there a decrease, and only Poland saw a very small increase of less than one percentage point.

Italy and its problems with remote work

According to the Eurostat data analysed above, Italy was one of the countries with the lowest incidence of remote work before the pandemic (the fifth in line, after Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania and Hungary). The situation has certainly changed with the pandemic, but is still difficult to analyse, primarily due to the lack of data on the subject.

As the National Social Security Institute (INPS) points out, the vast majority of people had not had any experience of working remotely before the outbreak of the pandemic.

From another survey, carried out by INAPP, we know that in the most acute phase of the pandemic, almost 9 million people in the country worked remotely, which is about 40 percent of all employed people. A figure that would then drop to 32.5 percent in 2021.

This was certainly a positive change, which allowed many people to stay at home during health emergencies while continuing to work. It also paved the way for the repopulation of rural areas. However, this privilege has also brought a number of problems. For example, that of increased unregulated working hours, as revealed by a study by Eurofound (the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions). Remote working conditions have in fact often meant, as the agency points out, an excess of hours worked.

ISTAT conducted a survey among those who continued to work remotely in Italy even after the ease of restrictions (carried out between December 2021 and January 2022), and it emerged that more than half of the respondents felt there was at least one issue with this way of working. One was the overlap with personal and family activities, due to unregulated working hours.

The most frequently reported difficulty concerns internet connection issues (28.6%). This has to do with the wide digital inequalities still entrenched in the country. In 2020, Italy was in fact one of the countries at the bottom of the EU’s digital indicators ranking.

The most frequently mentioned difficulties are that of concentration (26.1%) and that caused by the overlapping with personal or family activities (23.4%).

To date, remote work seems to have been one of the most impactful phenomena of the pandemic period – at least in Italy, where it previously had a very low incidence, and at least in the short term. Whether this is a long-term change will become more clear in the coming years. The same may be said of the other, extremely complex, dynamics that characterised the world of employment in the aftermath of the pandemic.

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