Remote work in the European context: following modern challenges

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The European employment rules are evolving in line with the modern digital challenges: thus, recently the EU introduced some legal means applied both to remote working aspects as well as addressing certain aspects linked to the right to disconnect. 

Background
Distant, remote and the so-called telework has become widespread, especially during and in post-pandemic time. Thus, the EU Labor Force Survey shows that the overall proportion of people working from home in the EU has more than doubled in the last few years, from about 11 percent in 2019 to over 20 percent in 2022.
However, significant differences exist across industries, sectors and work profiles, also depending on remote work and jobs, mainly to the extent whether the work is feasible to be performed online and remotely. Evidence shows those workers involved in telework clearly appreciate its benefits, notably its flexibility, with over 60 percent of respondents (in the 2022 Eurofound survey) confirming they want to work from home during at least part of their working time.
Note. Presently, the Commission is seeking EU social partners’ views and providing for a two-stage consultation of European social partners for proposals in the social policy field based on Article 153 TFEU.
Source: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_24_1363

The EU-wide legislative framework
Regardless of the fact that there is currently no EU legislation regulating telework or the right to disconnect, there are EU laws that indirectly apply to the context of remote working and address certain aspects linked to the right to disconnect. Thus, the 2021-2027 European strategic framework on health and safety at work sets out key priorities and actions to ensure the protection of workers’ safety and health at work.
The Working Time Directive sets rules on daily and weekly rest periods, annual leave, and limits on weekly working hours. The Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions gives workers without a predictable working pattern (e.g. on-demand or zero-hours workers) the right to know in advance when and where work will take place.
Finally, the EU directive on the “work-life balance” helps parents and caregivers a balanced work coped with a family life by providing rights related to suitable leaves and flexible working arrangements.

In 2024, the Commission published a study exploring the social, economic and legal context and trends of telework and the right to disconnect, in the context of digitalisation and the future of work, during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study builds on extensive consultations with administrations in all Member States as well as workers, employers, experts and academia. The results of this study will feed into the preparation of EU action on telework and the right to disconnect, alongside the outcome of the social partners’ consultation.
Over recent decades, the use of information and communication technologies for work has facilitated flexible work arrangements, such as telework, which offer potential benefits to both employees and employers. At the same time, they also pose important risks, particularly in terms of working conditions, workers’ health and safety, and work-life balance.

During the post-pandemic, some evidences have shown that a sizeable proportion of employees and employers have a preference for hybrid working arrangements, that combine telework with on-site work. Thus, in already in January 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution with recommendations to the Commission on the right to disconnect: the resolution called on the Commission to present a legislative proposal on the right to disconnect, as well as on the additional European legislative framework for telework. Specifically, the resolution highlighted the fundamental role of social partners in identifying and implementing measures addressing the challenges of digitalisation, telework and the right to disconnect.
Based on this policy background, the European Commission commissioned in 2022 a special study on the issue, as one of the follow-up actions to the European Parliament’s resolution. The objective of the study has been to gather evidence and to better understand the challenges, opportunities and trends in relation to the flexibility of working time and work location, with a focus on telework and the right to disconnect.

Reference to: https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=738&langId=en&pubId=8595&furtherPubs=yes

Working hours: states-EU regulations
Eurofound database on wages, working time and collective disputes (published in 2019, the last year available) mentioned three distinct groups of EU member states in terms of the maximum duration of working week time regulated through statutory legislation:
a) countries that set their maximum weekly hours at the 48 hours specified by the working time directive, WTD adopted in 2003 – Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands;
b) countries that set their maximum weekly working time below 40 hours – 38 hours in Belgium and 35 hours in France; and
c) countries that operate under a limit of 40 hours, which may be extended to 48 hours or more under certain conditions (the remaining EU countries).

Collective bargaining also plays a crucial role in determining the duration of weekly working time. However, its role and the main bargaining practices employed (sectoral, company, multi-tier, etc.) vary between EU countries and sectors, as reflected in comparative research on industrial relations and working-time regimes typologies. In numerous Eastern European states the working time is generally not determined through collective bargaining, because collective bargaining either does not exist or does not play an important role. By contrast, in the Nordic countries, collective bargaining (mainly sectoral) is the predominant basis for the regulation of working time. In between these two models, there are several countries where statutory legislation predominates, although collective bargaining also plays an important or very important role, either at sectoral level (e.g. Austria, Belgium, France, Spain, the Netherlands) or company level (e.g. Italy and Malta).

Source: Study exploring the social, economic and legal context and trends of telework and the right to disconnect, in the context of digitalisation and the future of work, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Final report. – Publications Office of the European Union, 2024, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2767/532522.

The right to disconnect
Telework brings many opportunities to both the employees and employers; however a new “world of work” is to tackle some challenges: while the digital aspects can allow for flexible work arrangements, they have raised some questions concerning the workers’ rights in a more digitalised work environment. This includes, for example, ensuring adequate working conditions as well as health and safety at work.
The use of digital tools for work and the possibility to work remotely, at the same time, can carry the risk of a so-called “always-on-work” emerging trends: i.e. which is leading to the necessity of regulating the “right to disconnect”, that is drawing some clear boundaries between employers’ professional and private life.
The Commission’s consultations on the issues are following the European Parliament’s 2021 resolution calling for a proposal to address these issues. In line with President von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines as regards resolutions adopted by the European Parliament under Article 225 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, TFEU the Commission is committed to respond with a legislative proposal in full respect of proportionality, subsidiarity and better law-making principles.
In the meantime, European cross-industry social partners launched negotiations to update their 2002 Framework Agreement on telework, supported by the Commission. Following their inconclusive negotiations, they asked the issue to be addressed by the Commission. This is why the Commission is now launching the formal consultation of the EU social partners, as per the rules and procedure for social policy legislation; the consultation is open until 11 June 2024.

Citations
= “Thanks to digital technologies, many jobs can now be performed remotely. The overall balance is positive, with 60% of workers preferring to work from home for at least part of their week. Workers appreciate the flexibility and autonomy of telework, while companies gain from higher productivity and staff retention. We are now consulting social partners on the opportunities and risks linked to telework. We want to make sure that EU rules promote their autonomy and do not stand in the way of companies and workers who agree to teleworking. We are also seeking their views on whether specific risks require EU action. This includes the risks to workers’ health from an ‘always on call’ culture and the related call from the European Parliament to ensure the right to disconnect.”
Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People

   = “Teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic was a necessity and is now an enduring aspect of modern work life. As we adapt to this change, it’s important to recognise and tackle its profound social implications. The Commission remains committed to respond to the European Parliament’s resolution with legislative proposals, as stated in the Political Guidelines. Following the inconclusive negotiations between social partners, the Commission invites the social partners to express their views on the next steps. A sound policy for teleworking and a right to disconnect are vital for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and for protecting the mental and physical well-being of workers.”
Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights

Additional information in: = Consultation document: first-phase consultation of social partners, and = Study on telework and the right to disconnect.

 

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