This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Digitalisation and digital tools have brought many opportunities, both in our personal lives and work. Over the last two years, those of us that were able to have benefited from using digital technologies in our work, including being able to telework, having more flexible working time, increasing our productivity and reducing our commuting time.
During the pandemic, digital tools for work purposes have saved countless lives and businesses and helped millions of workers working from home. One in three workers started working from home in the last two years. Many companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Shopify have publicly announced a long-term shift to permanent telework while claiming that office centricity is part of the past; surveys show that 80% of European employers require or are considering more employees to work remotely once the pandemic is over.
The future of work is here, and more hybrid working patterns are likely to emerge with higher levels of take-up of remote working than before the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work and accelerated a new digital trend that will challenge the existing working models and patterns, including national systems and the fundamental rights of workers.
Read more: The Changing Geography of Work: Priorities for policy makers by Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor, Harvard Business School
That is why we will need to pay attention to any possible risks, drawbacks and harmful side effects such as intensified work and extended working hours. This new “digital obesity” has created the new phenomena of being "over-connected" and an "always-on culture". Detrimental effects can be seen on workers' fundamental rights, fair working conditions, fair remuneration, working time and work-life balance, health and safety at work, and gender equality.
The always-on culture puts high pressure on workers to respond to emails, phone calls and texts long after their working day or week has ended. The constant pressure on workers to be available at any time can often be further aggravated if the organisational culture at work incentivises employees to accept heavy workloads and put in overtime, often unpaid. This affects the work-life balance, leading to conflicts between work and home life, insufficient rest and health problems like work-related stress and sleep disorders.
In response to these new developments, on 21 January 2021 the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the Right to Disconnect. In the Resolution, the Parliament called on the European Commission to adopt a Union directive on the Right to Disconnect (R2D) and a separate legal framework for telework. The Parliament considers this right to be fundamental, and which must form an integral part of new working patterns in the digital age.
The R2D can be described as the right of citizens to switch off their digital devices after work without facing negative consequences for not responding to communications from bosses, colleagues or clients. And at the same time, employers should also not require or pressure workers to be directly or indirectly available outside their working time.
The idea is not new, and once again was recently in the spotlight when Portugal approved new rules in response to the explosion of home working due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Portuguese employers could now face penalties for contacting workers outside of office hours.
We need better protection for workers in our new digital reality to ensure the well-being of all workers, both when they are not working—at home with their family in the evening, on leave or on holidays—and during teleworking. These new working patterns and models should be used as an asset that benefits both employers and workers while mitigating their adverse effects on workers’ rights. The Right to Disconnect, and proper legal frameworks for telework, should be seen as essential social policy instruments to protect workers' rights and decent working conditions in the future of work post-COVID-19.
Find more in the OECD policy paper: Productivity gains from teleworking in the post COVID-19 era: How can public policies make it happen?