Telework, a new privilege?

The Covid crisis has accelerated the rise of telework in all European countries, in all sectors of activity and all company sizes. This has benefited employees and companies, whose satisfaction and productivity levels have increased. But it also risks creating a digital divide between "teleworkable" jobs and those that are not.

Published On: March 27th, 2023

From 5.4 percent in 2019, the share of Europeans working regularly from home has risen to 13.4 percent in 2021. “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a rise in teleworking across Europe,” observes Wouter Zwysen, a researcher at the ETUI (European Trade Union Institute), the research centre of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). However, the gap between Northern Europe, which had already taken great steps in this direction, and Southern Europe, has not been bridged: “Telework has become even more common in countries where it was already accepted,” continues the researcher.

Working from home has thus become “an essential component of the world of work in the 21st century”, observes the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Eurofound, in a study published in December 2022. Telework now involves more than 40 million people across Europe, or about 20 percent of those in employment. With 34.3 percent of teleworkers, France is in the upper middle, behind the Netherlands (53.8%), Sweden (46.2%), Finland (41%) and Belgium (39.9%), but far ahead of Germany (24.7%), Spain (15.3%), Italy (14.8%) and Bulgaria (6.5%).


Regulating telework

In France, 25 percent of private sector employees already had the possibility to work remotely in 2017. They rose to 41 percent during the spring 2020 lockdown, and have since stabilised at around 35 percent, with two major differences compared to the pre-health crisis: telework is now performed on average for 2.4 days per week, compared to 1.6 days in 2019. Moreover, it has been formalised, in the framework of a company agreement or an amendment to the employment contract, in more than half of the cases, compared to barely a quarter in 2017. The forced development of telework in 2020 has created favourable conditions for its continuation beyond the crisis,” notes Mathilde Pesenti, a researcher at Dares. “Its extension and perpetuation have led to the need to regulate its practice.” 

For the year 2021 alone, Dares has counted 4,070 company agreements on the subject: this is ten times more than in 2017 and represents 67 percent of collective agreements and amendments devoted to working conditions. The increase in the power of SMEs, which have typically lagged behind large companies, is undeniable. The eligibility criteria for telework are among the themes that are addressed systematically in these agreements: they are determined by the nature of the job, of course, but also questions of seniority. In the end, the requirements are quite basic: the average length of service required is between 3 and 6 months.

In the rest of Europe, negotiations have focused on the economic dimension of telework, “an important issue in the context of the energy crisis”, observes Aude Cefaliello, a researcher at ETUI. In Italy, for example, the net savings from working from home have been estimated at 500 euro per workstation per year for companies, and 600 euro for employees (-1,000 euro in transport costs, +400 euro in energy costs). To reduce the impact of the energy crisis on their costs, large companies such as the insurer Generali or the telecom operator Tim have decided to close their offices on Fridays.

In France, the issue of providing specific equipment (most often a laptop, but also an ergonomic desk or chair) is addressed in 81 percent of company agreements. On the other hand, this remains a blind spot in Slovenian legislation, where the law is unanimously recognised as outdated: employers and the labour inspectorate have not really taken an interest in the new working environment of their employees, whose musculoskeletal disorders and ocular fatigue have only increased. In this regard, the position of European trade unions is unanimous: “Wherever they work, employees must be safe,” summarises Aude Cefaliello.


Prevention: minimum service

It can hardly be said that companies have taken a proper look at the health and safety challenges of telework. In France, 77 percent of company agreements deal with the issue, but often in a summary manner: for example, by simply recalling the principle of the right to disconnect. They “rarely provide for the implementation of specific prevention or safety measures adapted to the increased use of telework”, notes Mathilde Pesenti.

The risks linked to hyperconnection and isolation have been clearly identified. “Last June, the European social partners agreed to open discussions on this issue with the aim of turning it into a directive,” explains Aude Cefaliello. “The idea is to come up with a legally binding text for all EU Member States. But it will take time.” In the meantime, Eurofound experts observe a double movement: on the one hand, “telework improves the balance between professional and private life. It makes childcare easier to manage, reduces travel time and increases professional autonomy”. On the other hand, “it can increase the pressure on workers to be available all the time or to work in their spare time. Some have experienced isolation and balance conflicts due to the blurring of work-life boundaries”.


Towards a new digital divide

Already in July 2020, Eurofound warned of another emerging risk: the divide between those who can telework and those who cannot. Looking at data from the European Working Conditions Survey, the foundation calculated that in the European Union “37 percent of paid employment is currently teleworkable”. This corresponds more or less to the figures put forward by the OFCE (Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques) in May 2020, during full lockdown: in France, out of 28.5 million jobs, 18.5 million (65 percent) would not be eligible for telework.

Historically reserved for “high-paid white-collar jobs”, telework has become more widespread during the pandemic, involving more “lower and middle-level administrative employees”, observes Eurofound. But it remains inaccessible to a whole range of fields involving physical and social interaction: health, manufacturing, agriculture, logistics, retail, care, etc. Occupations that kept society on its feet during lockdown, even though they are generally low-paid and socially undervalued.

Eurofound has crunched the numbers: almost three quarters of those in the top wage quintile can potentially telework. In contrast, only 5 percent of those in the lowest quintile can work from home. Thus, telework appears to be a new privilege for a population already well off in terms of job quality and pay. This leads Eurofound to call on “policy makers to ensure that employees who telework are on an equal footing with those who cannot”.


Thinking telework

In France, according to the 2022 edition of the Malakoff Humanis barometer, 63 percent of company managers think that hybrid work, with two or three days of telework per week, will continue to develop. This is primarily because it meets a social demand (81%), but also because it allows for a renewal of managerial practice (67%), reduces absenteeism (60%) and improves productivity (69%).

Economists Antonin Bergeaud, Gilbert Cette and Simon Drapala looked at the productivity of companies that used telework before, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. The conclusion: “A significant overall increase in the use of telework in the long term could improve productivity by about 10%”. However, this needs to happen under the right conditions. The effects of telework on productivity are “non-linear”, with “an increasing and then decreasing positive impact corresponding to an inverted J curve”. Productivity losses can be linked to “a lack of preparation, inadequate technical means, lack of exchange between colleagues and unsuitability of the workplace, especially in the presence of young children”. Moreover, “the effects of telework are all the more positive and significant if this form of work is supported by both the workers concerned and management”. What about support for employees who do not have access to telework? Let’s hope that their voices will also be taken into account…

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