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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The pandemic has prompted an unprecedented and unexpected boost in flexible work, particularly working from home (WFH). Flexible work detaches work from a fixed and defined workplace. Telework allows employees to shorten or eliminate their commute, and to find time for family chores and childcare during their workdays. To fulfil the promises of telework, core work standards should be in place that enable flexible work while providing necessary protections.
The workplace has traditionally been a central component of the employment relationship: workers were paid to be present at a particular location, and employers were responsible for its safety. It also provided structure: colleagues interacted at work, and performance was measured not only by results but also by social relations. Employment relations, workers’ representation and unionisation were also based on contacts at the workplace and gave rise to collective action and solidarity. A strong trend towards flexible work will therefore fundamentally affect the nature of work and its regulation.
Read more: Future of work and workers’ rights post COVID-19 by Alex Agius Saliba, Member of the European Parliament, Labour Party
What do we know about telework?
The pandemic and the associated lockdowns have forced many from the workplace into flexible work. The ILO estimates that “during the second quarter of 2020, 557 million workers worked from home, accounting for 17.4% of the world’s employment”. In the United States, 33% of workers reported that they had teleworked because of the coronavirus pandemic in May-June 2020; this number declined to a still substantial 22% in the fourth quarter of 2020.
A key factor is the suitability of occupations for telework. Dingel & Neiman (2020) estimate that 37% of the jobs in the United States can be performed entirely from home. These jobs are more likely to be better paid and based on analytical tasks rather than low-paid manual work. Even in sectors that are less suited to telework, higher-educated workers are more likely to work flexibly compared to others. It is also not surprising “that the finance, management, professional services, and information sectors have the highest potential for remote work” (McKinsey Global Institute,2021).
Telework has the potential to improve work-life balance by cutting long commutes and enabling short breaks for family tasks during the workday, but it does not automatically translate into better working conditions. Research shows that contextual factors are of crucial importance. The degree of organisational support available to employees, but also the organisational culture, support by colleagues and social interaction effect the outcomes of telework on health (Oakman et al. 2020). Moreover, Oakman et al.’s study finds that women working from home are less likely to experience improved health outcomes than men. Working time can easily blur for workers, as home-based workers tend to work longer hours than workers onsite (Weber 2021) and workplace surveillance can become a serious issue (ERC 2021).
Read The role of telework for productivity and well-being during and post-COVID-19: Survey evidence from managers and workers on implications for productivity and well-being
Whether flexible work will lead to more polarisation between high- and low-skilled workers, have gendered effects on health and increase the digital surveillance of workers will critically depend on regulation by governments and social partners. How these issues should be regulated is still a largely open question. Some governments (Spain, Portugal and Finland) have started regulating working time for teleworkers (Eurofound 2021) and the European Parliament has called for a European right to disconnect (EP 21 January 2021).
As a general approach, the legal and practical understanding of the workplace needs to be redefined to include telework. As work is likely to become increasingly hybrid, with a mixture of onsite and remote work, the nature of the workplace will change. There should be a baseline of labour standards for telework, which is both manageable for employers and protective towards workers.
Health and safety regulations for mobile and telework need to cover data privacy protection and liability for data security, work insurance as well as costs for equipment and working time regulation. Moreover, access to the digital workplace for staff representatives and trade unions should be provided, as well as digital spaces to meet colleagues and the right to choose between onsite or remote work. Whoever decides who works from home or comes to the office shapes the power balance between workers and supervisors. It affects the delicate balance between the rights and responsibilities at work: management has the right to manage, but also a duty of care.
For policy makers, these decisions are best negotiated with stakeholders, who have the interests of good working conditions and good jobs in mind. Telework is not only a necessity in the pandemic but also a tool to reduce the stress of commuting and improve work-life balance. With the help of good policies, we can avoid the risks and maximise the benefits.
As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event The New Geography of Work: From home, near home and beyond took place on 8 December 2021.
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