Remote Work: Its Impact on Wellbeing, and International Policy Solutions
Tatjana Buklijas, Naomi Simon-Kumar
One of the most visible marks left by the pandemic has been a broad shift in working patterns.
No other episode in modern history has involved such a pronounced and widespread shift in working arrangements in such a compressed time frame, write authors of a survey of working from home practices around the world, run jointly by the University of Chicago, ITAM, MIT, and Stanford University.
Just under a third of working adults reported both working from home and travelling to work between September 2022 and January 2023, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). That contrasts with one in eight, before the pandemic.
Perhaps more importantly, employees regularly report they will quit if required to return to the employer’s worksite full-time.
As policymakers look for ways to manage this shift in working practices, and work out how best to support employees, IPPO has been focused on where the evidence gaps are: an issue highlighted by the Government Office for Science.
To support this work, our team at INGSA has recently completed a scan* of innovations and promising practices from policymakers in the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.
This is a very recent policy problem. Although an early EU framework discussing conditions, character and other aspects (data protection, privacy, collective rights, health and safety and others) of remote work (Social Partners’ Agreement on Telework) was published as early as 2002, the numbers of remote workers grew slowly, from under 8% in 2008 to 11% in 2019, doubling during the pandemic (22% in 2021).
Member states had a different uptake of remote work, with the lowest numbers in the south and east and highest in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The reasons for diversity are mostly linked to the types of jobs and infrastructure, but there may be cultural components (France).
Teleworkers pre-pandemic are different from teleworkers post-2020
Pre-pandemic in the EU the remote worker was most likely to be a professional man over 49, in ICT/finances/science/professional sectors.
Post-pandemic in the EU the remote worker is aged 30-44, most often in public administration and finance. People with children and women are more likely to work entirely from home.
There has been a lot of literature especially early in the pandemic on the benefits of telework. We leave this aside and focus on the possible risks to wellbeing broadly defined.
Because of the recency of the problem and the changing profile of the remote/hybrid worker, the exact nature of the risks is unclear.
Risks identified so far include:
- physical strain
- work time (especially where remote/hybrid work is also flexible)
- reconciliation of work with private life
- Right to disconnect: Since 2016, legislation covering the right to disconnect has been passed in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. In January 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution in favour of the right to disconnect, calling on the Commission to prepare a directive ‘that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours’. This order ‘should also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods’. Ministers noted that the right of workers to disconnect is critical to ensuring physical and mental health and wellbeing. The resolution is accompanied by a legislative proposal that defines disconnecting as ‘not [engaging] in work-related activities or communications by means of digital tools, directly or indirectly, outside working time’.
- Coworking spaces in urban areas: Portuguese government building networks of coworking spaces. For example, in Porto.
- Subsidising and supporting coworking spaces in rural areas: CoLabora transnational project creating co-working spaces in rural areas.
- Smart working law in Italy: In Italy, flexible work practices that balance work and family life through the use of ICT are referred to as ‘smart working’. These practices were established in law in 2017 and stipulate that smart working should be defined by an individual agreement between employers and employees, including provisions for rest periods and the technical and organisational measures that will ensure the worker can disconnect from work devices. According to law, requests made by mothers of small children or parents of disabled children must be given priority by employers.
Policies addressing remote work tend to be integrated with policies targeting other policy problems. E.g. they are tied up with the objective revival of rural areas; those towards building low-carbon, equitable, lively urban spaces (for example through the New European Bauhaus initiative); and improving gender equity. In many cases improving the remote work conditions is a late addition to these longer-standing policy issues.
Linking these policy goals together appears to be a smart choice as it is likely to result in a more efficient and longer lasting policy intervention.
It is not clear how effective these policies are. For instance, recent research has shown that remote workers tend to remain in cities although they could, ostensibly, work from rural regions. More research needs to be done but it seems that the key reasons are the lack of both “hard” (good quality internet, suitable housing) and “soft” infrastructure (educational opportunities for dependents, jobs for spouses etc).
No specific policies to mitigate possible psychosocial effects of remote work, however First Steps, one-stop ‘shop’ for access to mental health for employers and employees. Examples of ‘products’ are lists of available mental health practitioners, online applications for one-off mental health support packages; and online resources. The programme was developed during the pandemic and was revived after the summer 2023 floods and cyclone. It is provided in collaboration with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and the Employers and Manufacturers Association. Note again the intersection of policy areas and goals.
Government of New Zealand has published a guidance for government agencies to support the health and safety of remote employees. This guidance is in reference to, and arising from, the obligations that the Government has as an employer, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.
The government agency Worksafe New Zealand provides guidelines for remote employees to stay mentally healthy when working from home. These guidelines are both for the full-time and occasional remote workers, and includes information on rights and obligations in relation to flexible working, sick leave and other employment rights and duties.
Flexible working arrangements: From June 2023, (some) employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 12 months are legally able to request flexible working arrangements under newly introduced National Employment Standards (NES). Employees who meet the criteria include parents and caregivers of school aged or younger children; recognised carers; disabled individuals; individuals aged 55 or older; individuals experiencing family violence; pregnant individuals; persons providing care or support to a member of their household or immediate family who requires care or support because that person is experiencing violence from their family.
Occupational health and safety guidelines: The Canadian government has published occupational health and safety guidelines for remote workers, including ergonomic tips for setting up home offices, as well as guidance around work scheduling for to avoid injury for home-based workers.
The city of Vancouver published a remote and flexible work toolkit for employers which provides a template for employers and employees to develop an Employee Remote Work Agreement.
The United States
Recommendations on dependent care for remote workers: The US Office of Personnel Management published telework guidance specific to dependent care for federal agencies. The Office advises that remote work may be used in conjunction with leave or other workplace flexibilities and can provide employees with valuable additional time for care responsibilities by reducing commuting time or by allowing employees to temporarily care for a family member who resides in a different geographic location.
Agencies/managers are recommended to exercise discretion in determining whether an employee can accomplish some part of their duties from the telework site in such situations.
*During INGSA’s initial inquiries across teams throughout the world, the initial question produced very few results. Therefore the scope of this scan was limited to countries that:
- a) have with high proportion of workers in jobs suitable for hybrid/remote work,
- b) have infrastructure that would support it (housing, fast internet)
- c) have had lockdowns that were long & strict, providing enough time and motivation for both employees and employers to invest resources into moving online.
EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. (federal level) all satisfy the above criteria.
- Eurofund. 2022. Industrial Relations. Telework in the EU: Regulatory framework and recent updates.
- Eurofund. 2023. Anticipating and managing the impact of change. The future of telework and hybrid work.
- European Urban Initiative 2021-2027. https://www.urban-initiative.eu/what-european-urban-initiative
- Bruegel (Brussels, Belgium). Future of Work and Inclusive Growth in Europe project (multiple publications). https://www.bruegel.org/project/future-work-and-inclusive-growth-europe
- CoLabora the Leader Programme under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development
- Eurofund. 2021. Right to disconnect.
- First Steps New Zealand
- Worksafe New Zealand. 2021. Staying mentally healthy when working from home.
- Government Health & Safety Lead. 2020. Supporting workers to work from home. A guide for Government agencies to manage risks for workers working from home.
- Fair Work Ombudsman Australia. 2023. Flexible working arrangements.
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. 2022. Health and Safety Programs. Telework/Remote Work/Working from Home.
- City of Vancouver. 2022. Remote and flexible work toolkit for employers.
- U.S. Government. Telework guide. Telework and dependent care.