2020 was a very different year in every imaginable way. It may well be a year that most of us individually would like to forget as soon as possible. However, the impact of the coronavirus on all our lives is here to stay, way beyond the time needed to get us all vaccinated. While many companies had already thought about introducing some kind of telework, the profound health crisis we were confronted with forced them to go ahead and actually introduce it, wherever they could.
In some places, governments intervened and imposed mandatory home working in an effort to reduce contamination rates. Live meetings with staff were to be avoided as much as possible and employees were asked to work at home, alone. Of course, the impact of this goes far beyond the mere issue of where work is done, and all the trade unions and employee representative bodies have needed to deal with a whole raft of new issues surrounding home working.
While most teleworking employees have internet access and a laptop to work on, what about their other working conditions? Ergonomic chairs, the availability of a separate monitor, larger than the one on the laptop? What if a couple are both required to work from home and participate in video or conference calls? Can this be done from the same kitchen or living room table? What about confidentiality and data privacy considerations? What about the additional costs of heating and electricity while working at home? And what about work accident insurance? What about the effects of isolation and disengagement experienced by individual employees, separated from their colleagues? Not to mention the challenges of managing a remote team, as opposed to managing employees face to face. Different skills are required.
There are concerns about the mental health of workers working remotely, to the extent that more than 20 per cent of the employers we surveyed thought that a greater emphasis on the mental health of their workers will be needed in the years to come. COVID-19 has brought health and safety issues right to the forefront of discussions, becoming of boardroom importance. Employers, employee representatives on health and safety committees and trade unions will together need to look for answers to the new challenges.
Teleworking from home decreases the stress of commuting. Most of us hate to be stuck in traffic jams or packed public transport. Working from home allows you to step from your bed straight into your “virtual office” with, hopefully, a shower and some breakfast in between. But for this reason, it also blurs the boundaries between work and private life.
However annoying the commute may have been, it also represented a physical barrier between people’s working and private lives. Most employers see no reduction in the productivity of their workforce at home, in fact, quite often they report increases in productivity.
While the amount of work done from home may shrink to some extent over time, most employers whose business allows for at least some home working are likely to continue to facilitate this in the future. More than 20 per cent of the employers we surveyed thought issues surrounding work-life balance will therefore be crucial in the next three years.
The right for employees to disconnect from work will be a hot topic among the various “social partners” – employers, employees, employee representatives and, sometimes, government – in the near future. How can we collectively make sure this shapes up as it should?
Trade unions and employee representatives are routinely consulted on these issues by employers on behalf of the workforce, but it is important they really understand what this new home-based workforce wants. Even connecting with them well enough to canvass their opinions properly is not straightforward. And at the moment, even bargaining meetings may have to be virtual. Up until now, meetings between employers and trade unions have often been rather long, with the negotiators making the most of the breaks to have off-the-record chats with the other side. But virtual meetings work very differently.
Works councils, health and safety committees and European works councils all meet virtually at the moment. European trade unions have given their members instructions to insist on real live meetings once the crisis is over. Of course, virtual meetings in an international context are even more cumbersome than local meetings, with the need for simultaneous translation adding an extra layer of complexity. However, current circumstances have pushed technological development at an incredible rate and perhaps this will ease some of the challenges. It seems likely that although it is easier to have tricky discussions on, say, restructuring and lay-offs face to face, it’s unlikely that all meetings in a COVID-free world will become live again. The opposite may be the case with occasional live meetings, but most will be virtual, shorter in duration, more structured and to the point. And, of course, such virtual meetings are also less costly, which is not unimportant given the economic challenges most companies are now confronted with.
The direct negative impact of COVID-19 on the hotel and restaurant business is immense. With it there have inevitably been disastrous consequences for many platform workers. Lockdown means people don’t move around as they did before. Hairdressers and those in what are referred to as “contact occupations” are prohibited from working. Most are considered selfemployed and hence not entitled to any unemployment benefits. Many governments have included this category of workers in their stimulus measures, regardless of their employment status.
But this begs the bigger question of whether the entire discussion on the status of workers, employed or selfemployed, that has been playing out across the world is still relevant and whether, in fact, trade unions should be allowed to represent these selfemployed, but out-of-work, people too. If not, who should?