It’s two years now since the pandemic struck and lockdowns were enforced by many nations, changing forever the way we lived and worked. But in Europe now, as restrictions end and governments try to restore normality with a sentiment that the coronavirus will be a fact of life and we need to learn to live with it — just as we’ve learnt to live with seasonal influenza — the workplace has changed.
Business as usual now means working from home more often — and EU states are bringing in new laws to protect workers whose living room is now their new office in the digital workspace.
Those changes mean, for example, that in Belgium, a four-day work week will soon become the norm — the option is also being seriously considered in Wales — while more workers across the continent are being given the right to “switch off”.
Bosses from Ireland to Italy and Portugal to Poland will no longer be able to send you email messages or texts after normal business hours and expect you to act on it. Even if there’s those double blue ticks to say you’ve read the message, you don’t have to deal with it until the next time you have clocked in remotely.
Last month, public servants working for the Belgian federal government were given the right to disconnect, allowing them to turn off work devices and ignore messages after hours without reprisals from bosses.
The right to switch off
The right to switch off has proved widely popular — so much so that all Belgian workers, even those in the private sector, will soon receive the same right.
Obviously, depending on the criticality of your work — a doctor or those in jobs that require such round-the-clock connectivity would be exempt — there are exceptions, but even those will have to be determined under a framework
In practice, the new law will apply to all employers with more than 20 staff and companies will be expected to negotiate with trade unions to include the right to disconnect in new collective agreements.
But the pandemic has brought about a paradigm shift in resetting the work-life balance.
In part the change in attitude has been brought about by what human resource specialists refer to as “the great resignation”.
Across Europe, one worker in five on average has simply decided that they want a change, and walked away from their jobs. The pandemic, with its working from home or furlough, seeing family and friends pass away, has led many to reconsider what’s important in their personal lives — and re-evaluate just what work means, or indeed if it is meaningful to them. And they’ve walked away from their previous jobs.
The phenomenon isn’t just confined to Europe. Fortune magazine in the United States reports that by the beginning of 2022, 4.5 million workers in the US had quit. Coronavirus changed our careers and altered forever that relationship between employer and employee.
Higher electricity and internet bills
In Portugal, where last month the Socialists won a surprise re-election victory, employers face penalties for contacting workers outside of office hours. Companies also have to help pay for expenses incurred by remote working, such as higher electricity and internet bills.
The changes, however, don’t apply to companies with fewer than ten employees — and these measures that are becoming more commonplace across the EU to protect smaller companies, mean that it is these who are feeling the impact of that great resignation movement.
Employers are also forbidden from monitoring their employees while they work at home.
Before the pandemic, some 5 per cent of workers in the EU regularly worked from home. In some countries, this number more than quadrupled in during the pandemic. Finland, Luxembourg, and Ireland have the highest share of remote workers in the continent, with more than 20 per cent in jobs that either give them the option to work from home.
Digital infrastructure, which was promoted and improved under the EU’s move to create greater communication and connectivity between remote and poorer areas of the 27 member states, has been a boon with the pandemic. Many businesses simply would not have survived without remote digital infrastructure — and that’s helping drive this societal and business change across Europe.
A recent opinion poll in the United Kingdom some 30 per cent of workers would be less inclined to apply for a job if remote working wasn’t an option.
Germany, long a leader in the EU for empowering workers and giving them a voice in boardrooms, is also leading the charge. It is now mandatory to allow workers the right to work from home unless there are “compelling operational reasons”
Offering flexible work choices
Ireland’s large proportion of remote workers — it is the European base for the likes of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, LinkedIn and a myriad of other US tech giants attracted by its low corporate tax structure — has seen them become a driving force in plans to offer flexible work choices.
Soon, the Dublin government plans to make hybrid working mandatory, meaning managers will need a very good reason to decline your request to work from home. By default, Irish public servants will have to spend at least one day a week out of the office.
Companies too will have to provide and pay for safe and suitable equipment for home offices.
Russia, while not part of the EU, is keeping pace with these socioeconomic reforms, with companies mandated to provide material support for remote workers — reimbursing them for things like software, office chairs, and desks.
But in the UK, which left the EU last year, things are a little less clear. The government has said it might consider legislation to make home working a default option should workers request such a move. That might be the thinking in London. Last week, the government in Wales indicated that it was looking seriously at a mandatory four-day week for businesses there.
France has long embraced moves to legislate the work-life balance, with a 35-hour week in place since 2000. It’s toying with a 32-hour week, and has had a “right to disconnect” in place since 2016.
Spain and Greece too are looking at formalising remote working in new laws being debated by parliamentarians.