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The difficulties of policing remote work

AS OFFICE LIFE approaches some sort of new normal, remote working is here to stay. Employers enjoy cost savings as they spend less on desks and floor space. For employees the promise is of time saved: spared of their commute, they can get their work done and focus on their families and hobbies. That, at least, is the idea. But, as many a remote employee knows, the boundary between work and home life can blur.

Some governments and employers are trying to restore balance. In November Portugal announced legislation that, according to Ana Mendes Godinho, its labour minister, seeks to make the most of teletrabalho (remote work) while mitigating the downsides. Bosses are now banned from calling their employees “after hours”: those who make contact outside previously agreed times could be fined more than €9,000 ($10,000). Employers are also required to provide remote-working equipment and reimburse electricity and internet costs, and must hold in-person meetings twice a month, to help combat isolation.

Several European countries had similar rules in place even before covid-19. In 2017 the “right to disconnect”, which allowed workers to ignore after-hours texts, emails or calls from their bosses without fear of repercussion, took effect in France. Italy followed soon after. Earlier this year Ireland said workers could disregard late emails and calls.

Whether legislation can bring hours down, though, is unclear. Ambitious workers have plenty of incentive to pick up a call from their boss long after 5pm has come and gone; by comparison they stand to gain little from reporting violations of the law and landing their employer with a fine.

Then there is the practical difficulty of agreeing on when workers should be contactable, something that is often left to be negotiated between employer and employee. In France and Italy there is no obligation to find an agreement. Aside from one widely publicised court decision in 2018 ordering a pest-control company to pay €60,000 to an employee it had required to be reachable at all times in case of an emergency, little has come of the law in France. Even Ms Mendes Godinho’s office communicated with your correspondent at 7pm.

Perhaps change must come from within. In Japan, where toiling any less than 50 hours can be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the job, half of all workers were already back in the office at least three days a week by April 2021. But even there employers are responding to workers’ demands for a better work-life balance. Fujitsu, a technology giant, has introduced flexible hours and allows remote work. Elsewhere, the number of chief remote officers is proliferating. But few companies have gone as far as Volkswagen. For the past decade, the German carmaker’s servers have ensured that employees covered by a collective-pay agreement do not receive work emails on their phones between 6.15pm and 7am.

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This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the headline “Only disconnect”

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