On 7th January 2021, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organised a public hearing on Challenges of Teleworking: organization of working time, work life balance and the right to disconnect.
In an exploratory opinion requested by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council, the SOC Section of the EESC is organising a virtual/hybrid public hearing on 7 January to discuss the challenges of teleworking with a focus on organization of working time, work life balance and the right to disconnect. Due to Covid-19, working from home has become the norm for millions of workers. Early estimates suggest that close to 40% of those currently working in the EU began to telework fulltime due to the pandemic. All information about the public hearing can be found here.
COFACE Families Europe was invited to provide a civil society perspective in the discussions. Here below is the full speech by Director Elizabeth Gosme.
Challenges of Teleworking: organisation of working time, work-life balance and the right to disconnect
I.First a word about the COFACE position and reality, as a European civil society network of 50+ family organisations across 23 countries.
The importance of work-life balance has been magnified by the pandemic, since throughout 2020 a huge number of care and education services in Europe closed down temporarily and the burden was shifted further onto families like never before. Work-life balance is therefore higher than ever on the scale of workers’ demands, with more people wanting to be able to decide how to use their time and reconcile their work with their family and private life. While it can be an aspiration for some, for others it is a basic need: with insufficient care service provision for children or other family members with care or support needs, being able to work flexibly can be the only opportunity for many, especially women, to stay in employment.
Discussions over the “future of work” and how technologies and digitalization is having a deep impact on employment opportunities have been ongoing for years now, but have especially come to the fore due to the pandemic as millions of workers shifted to telework/home working. Recent Commission data indicates that in the EU, more than half of the workers who have started working from home since the pandemic had no prior experience with teleworking.
In our 2016 COFACE policy brief, we refer to smart work as one type of flexible working arrangement that can help many families reconcile their work and family life, but also a tool in the hands of businesses to review their relationship with their workers and the community around them.
A definition of Smart Work can be found in the European Parliament resolution of 13 September 2016 on creating labour market conditions favourable for work-life balance:
“Smart work as an approach to organising work through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, which does not necessarily require the worker to be present in the workplace or in any pre-defined place and enables them to manage their own working hours, while nevertheless ensuring consistency with the maximum daily and weekly working hours laid down by law and collective agreements”.
Flexible work arrangements can take different forms like smart work, job sharing, tele-work, compressed working hours, possibility to swap shifts among employees… Having access to generous, flexible and paid leaves, plus flexible working arrangements can be very beneficial for allowing workers to better reconcile their work, family and personal life. That balance is essential to keep both society and the economy running today and in the future.
II.What is the role of civil society players like COFACE to ensure work life balance and the right to disconnect? Two areas spring to mind, but there are many more.
-Firstly, civil society organisations in the COFACE network provide family supports of different types: prevention, emergency, post-emergency, to ensure that workers with caring duties receive support to reconcile work and family life. They include services, trainings, meeting places, respite centres, and much more.
Evidence from the Commission, suggests that in normal times people working from home can sustain, or even enhance, their productivity, while enjoying a better work-life balance. Yet, under the current exceptional circumstances productivity, working conditions, or both, may be deteriorating for many workers due to, among other problems, lack of childcare, unsuitable working spaces and ICT tools.
Moreover, the shift away from the idea of “work being done only at the workplace” also has some risks. In a period of rapid development of technologies, where we are all always connected, there is a risk of falling into a culture of total availability of the employee, because it will always be possible to be contacted and receive work-related requests because of technologies (e.g smartphones and constant email and internet connection). This can rapidly lead to the opposite consequences than the ones desired: from increased stress and anxiety to an even greater inability to reconcile work, family and personal life.
COFACE members across many EU countries have been working tirelessly to help families get through this pandemic crisis, they have adapted/are adapting their methods to ensure continued supports in the community (e.g. in schools or family centres) or in the workplace (via HR policies). You can see some examples in our European Family Lab webinars . Thanks to the European Employment and Social Innovation programme (EASI), we bring national and regional civil society organisations to learn from each other and address challenges together, but also to build partnerships outside of civil society such as the social partners, public authorities, researchers, health workers, education institutions and more. So please do join us in the Family Lab webinars and spread the word. The first webinar will take place on 19th January.
-Secondly, civil society players help to co-shape policy and legislation based on needs of families. Civil society, as always, can help empower and give a voice to families in vulnerable situations, suffering from poor physical and mental health, exclusion, poverty, discrimination, and more. Strong policy, advocacy and campaigning are more important than ever to bring a strong voice for such families in EU and national policy-making. Policies to support the transition to more widespread remote work will need to carefully consider the potential benefits and costs for productivity, job quality, and workers’ work-life balance and mental health.
Why does the voice of families matter in shaping policy and legislation? Families are citizens, consumers, and workers. Productivity of waged labour is essential to the economy, and we have very strong trade unions to bring the voice of waged labour and defend workers’ rights; but the other side of the coin is the unpaid work in families which makes this possible. That work is known by many names: unpaid care work, second economy. During this pandemic, it has become increasingly clear this is not a secondary economy but the core economy, the day-to-day, sustaining family, social and work life, providing universal human resources of time, knowledge, skills, care, empathy, teaching, and reciprocity. We are all part of this core economy, but women spend far more time in it than men.
The paid economy hugely depends on the unpaid economy. We will continue to work closely with the social partners and public authorities to ensure that any new developments in telework, smart work or other flexible work arrangements, including the transposition of the EU work-life balance directive, can help boost work-life balance and help move towards a genuine “reconciliation economy”. To that end, we fully support the idea of having an EU directive on the right to disconnect.