Teleworking struggles to take hold in Spain

An old attachment to the sociable office is preventing telework from taking off in Spain. Despite the advantages, Spain is still waiting for remote work to succeed, if only for a few days a week. Only 7% of Spanish workers have tried it.

Published On: November 14th, 2019
Teleworking struggles to take hold in Spain_62ccac8468543.jpeg
Teleworking struggles to take hold in Spain_62ccac8468543.jpeg

Photo: PxHere , CC0 Domaine public

Teleworking struggles to take hold in Spain

An old attachment to the sociable office is preventing telework from taking off in Spain. Despite the advantages, Spain is still waiting for remote work to succeed, if only for a few days a week. Only 7% of Spanish workers have tried it.

Photo: PxHere , CC0 Domaine public

Fernando and Jorge do very similar jobs. Both work in online marketing and spend all day in front of a computer from which they oversee campaigns and communicate with the rest of the team. The difference between them? One works from home while the other loses two hours of his day travelling to and from the office. Fernando works remotely and Jorge, although he has proposed the idea to his office, has never been able to try it. “I asked if we could do it recently, but the boss sees telework as a holiday. The mentality of the last century, of having us all under control in the same place, still persists”.

Nevertheless, Fernando has been certain of telework’s benefits ever since he began taking on his own projects working in numerous offices: “I gave up having a timetable and mandatory attendance in the office for all my employees. As you can see, at least from a selfish perspective, it’s how businesses function best, because when I have needed an extra effort from an employee there’s always someone there to help”. 

A better work-life balance, more workplace satisfaction, a reduction in operating costs, improved productivity…the benefits of telework are countless and constantly discussed. What is more, its implementation is easier than ever thanks to new technologies. Nevertheless, in Spain, Fernando is still the exception while Jorge is the norm. The Spanish are waiting in the long line of countries trying to withdraw work from the office, anchored in the post-Industrial Revolution model where the worker has to be present in the factory to be productive.

In countries such as Sweden, Iceland or the United Kingdom, around 25% of workers often work from home whilst the figure stands below 3% in Spain. Interestingly, some 27% of Spanish businesses have said that they would be open to try it. Although telework is growing in popularity, it is doing so much more slowly than what experts have hoped. Given that the benefits are clear for both parties, why isn’t this model succeeding in Spain?

‘Presenteeism’ and digital adaptation

The culture of ‘presenteeism’, sitting in the same seat for the same number of hours each week, being there when your boss arrives and when they go home, is the main reason for telework’s lack of success in Spain. As Fernando recalls, adapting to not having a panopticon view of your employees is no mean feat, even for those who believe in telework’s benefits: “As a boss, you often need to hold your tongue and avoid negative thoughts. Sometimes, you can see that someone isn’t online and you begin to doubt whether your business model is working or not. However, there are ups and downs in an office as well. For the most part, the positives outweigh the negatives”. Fernando argues that, in order for telework to be successful, we need to view work as a series of projects rather than a series of hours: “Realistically, I don’t care if it takes you six hours or eight. In the end, it’s the finished product that matters”. 

‘Presenteeism’ is also a hard habit to break for workers: “We are more sociable at work than our Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian counterparts. We want different things from work and one of those is sociability” says Roberto Martínez, Director of the Fundación Más Familia (The Sociable Work Foundation), which regularly informs the ‘Telework White Paper ’ that analyses the implementation of telework in Spain. This white paper came to the conclusion that telework helps to raise productivity, reduces operating costs for businesses, improves mobility in cities as well as reducing pollution, providing more freedom to choose for the worker and making workplace agreement more likely. It accepts, however, that it can be difficult to change. Sonia Herrera, President of the Spanish Association for the Promotion of Telework and Digital Entrepreneurship (AITED), explains that “it is difficult when you have never done it before. We are used to the idea that businesses operate from one place between 8am and 5pm. For telework to function successfully, we need to learn how to organise ourselves: if you have a flexible timetable, you need to impose your own timetable on yourself and plan what you are going to do. If not, you’ll probably end the day without having done any work”.

It is necessary to learn how to communicate remotely as well. According to the white paper, 80% of communications within businesses are done face to face. Moving from this to online communication is a potential barrier to telework’s success. “If you are used to ask for a colleague’s help every time you have a problem, you need to learn a different way to solve them”, adds Herrera. Her business is rooted in telework and her employees only see each other once a week though even this is only “for a social catch-up between employees because we are used to work remotely”. Totally remote working days are still pretty exceptional and, surprisingly, are not even the option preferred by the majority. According to the white paper, 47% of businesses believe that they could only function with two full days of telework a week.

Herrera, who advises businesses on digital and technological transition, believes that this rather daunting challenge is one of the reasons why telework has not taken off in Spain. “You need the right tools; not too complicated or different from the tools that are already used every day, just online rather than in the office. The problem is that I see businesses where everything is physically archived and, of course, a secretary is not going to be able to do that at home”.

Digital transition is proving particularly difficult in small businesses. According to the Spanish Statistical Office (INE), only 36% of businesses with less than ten workers provide their staff with remote access to emails, work documents and business applications, compared to 92.5% in big business. “Telework is much more common in multinationals because you often can’t see your boss. They’re often in somewhere like London or Dublin, and this has forced a change. They are the businesses that are introducing telework, even though they’re doing it much slower than we’d like” adds Más Familia. For example, the technology giant Dell plans to have 50% of its staff working remotely by 2020 and Amazon recently created 3,000 telework customer service jobs in the United States. Others, such as SAP and the UnitedHealth Group have been hiring people remotely for years.

A lack of regulatory framework 

The company for whom Inma worked until a few days ago employed everyone through telework. It is a big company, technologically up-to-date with international projects. Even so, her boss rarely allowed her to work from home as a financial controller. She did not even have to come in out of necessity: “My boss very much believed in attendance. Once, when my dog was ill, I asked to come in an hour late so I could take it to the vet. My boss told me to find the legislation that allowed me to do that. I had another colleague who was a single mother. When her kids were ill and she asked to work from home, she was reprimanded. So, in the end, if I needed to stay at home I would just say that I was ill. If you try and try but they don’t give you anything in return, what are you going to do?”. Furthermore, just getting into work required navigating a labyrinth of trains, metros and buses or traffic jams that last between thirty minutes and two hours. “In the end, I just left. There were many different reasons to leave but the commute was the main one”, she explains.

The thing that workers value most about working remotely is saving the time that it takes to commute to their workplace. Malena works as an administrator for AXA, a business that has pioneered telework since 2013. On Wednesdays, she works remotely and values the fact that, when she leaves her computer at the end of the day, she is already at home and can do her shopping or go to the gym. “When I work from home, I can do things that require more dedication and focus. When I’m in the office, it’s more difficult because there are a lot of complications and colleagues who want to chat. In fact, I sometimes concentrate so much at home that I lose track of time”.

As well as AXA, Santander Bank and Ikea have included remote work in their contracts. In the public sector, however, there are still very few opportunities for telework. In Spain, the number of public sector workers who work remotely is 6.7% compared to 17% in Europe and 51% in Sweden. Javier, an IT man at the Junta de Andalucía, would like to be one of them. “I have spoken with different bosses but public sector work is very standardised and changing anything requires new legislation”. In the private sector, where he had previously worked, new technologies are more ubiquitous. “I’ve got twins. Right when I need the opportunity to work remotely, I can’t. I could avoid the traffic jams, save the money that I waste on fuel or on buying food at work but I can’t do anything”, he says.

The Spanish Data Protection Agency is one of the few public institutions that has introduced telework- and to great effect. It began three years ago and, since then, they have managed to increase the number of cases resolved. In 2018, with a third of staff at the agency working remotely, they dealt with 20% more cases. “87% of those who apply for jobs here cite the ability to work at home as something that attracted them to the agency. We’ve made ourselves famous”, jokes the director, Mar España. Nowadays, around half of the 170 employees at the agency work from home two days a week, mainly on Monday and Friday.

Every worker that agrees to work remotely has to sign a clause in their contract that guarantees them the same rights as other employees at the company; respect of their private lives, health and safety adequacy for their workplace at home and a respect for the voluntary nature of their remote work. These rights are in tune with the European Framework Agreement on Telework, signed in Brussels in 2002 by European trade union representatives and business leaders. Nevertheless, it has had little legislative impact because it was conceived as a reference for developing domestic workplace law. Fifteen years later, it has not come to fruition in Spain. The legal vacuum is yet another barrier to Spanish progress in telework. These types of agreement only exist in certain sectors, including the chemical, perfume and insurance sectors albeit they are in line with the framework agreement.

Only Article 13 of the Statute of Workers’ Rights contains anything like the framework agreement, although it refers to ‘work at a distance’ rather than the more common ‘telework’, which is a little more up to date.

Guiding examples

The businesses that have experimented with telework are not looking back. In fact, Más Familia do not know of a single company that regrets their decision to introduce it. They do warn, however, that it is important to have a gradual and well-researched implementation programme in order to avoid failure. If a pilot plan is to be successful, a few key steps must be in place, including adequate project management and a training scheme to maximise the potential of ‘the cloud’ as a work tool. Businesses should also gradually test the weekly limits of employee’s capacity to work remotely and use the results to make decisions and improvements. “We need to consider that not everyone wants to work remotely, only around 60%. For telework to function successfully, it’s important that it remains voluntary. This needs to be respected”, explains Martínez.

In the end, as Sonia Herrera from AITED explains, the key to telework’s success is its flexibility: “According to Adecco, 80% of people are dissatisfied with their work, and one of the causes of that is the rigidity of timetables and production models. This is normal. We are happiest when we can choose and unhappy when certain conditions are imposed on us. Telework gives us the opportunity to choose. Even if we decide to go into the office, our mentality towards it is different. This is what’s important”.

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