The Battle to Legally Define WFH Begins

Image credit: iStockphoto/millann

It would seem that working from home is here to stay and will be one of the critical change legacies bequeathed by the 2020 lockdowns.

With that in mind, it might be time for more nations to follow Germany’s lead, where the Government is moving ahead with a “work from home law,” which could soon be enshrined in national legislation.

The German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil is the prime mover with the legislation, and a Bill will be presented for a vote this European winter.

“Anyone who wants to, and whose workplace allows it, should be able to work at home — even when the coronavirus pandemic is over,” Heil told the German newspaper Bild.

“We cannot stop the changes in the world of work, nor do we want to,” he said.

“The question is: how we can turn technological progress, new business models, and higher productivity into progress not only for a few but for many people. How do we turn technological progress into social progress?”

Clearer home-work boundaries

An estimated 8 million people, or 25% of the country’s workforce, are working from home across Germany’s 16 states, rising from 12% before the pandemic.

Heil has said the draft law would be published in a few weeks. It aims to ensure workers have the option of working from home when possible and regulating home-office work, such as limiting hours.

The law would seek to reinforce workers’ rights and set more explicit boundaries for the increasingly blurred lines between personal life and work.

As the world waits for the detail of the Bill, it is fascinating to consider what it will contain beyond giving people rights on where they work, because the implications of this change are so huge.

For example, does it include provisions to give workers an allowance for power, heating, internet, and phone services — costs which the vast majority of people working from home currently pay for informally? Or will this devolve down to the industrial relations system to arbitrate based on individual national laws? And what about workplace insurance — who exactly will be responsible for ensuring that the workplace is safe when it is also the worker’s home?

Some other European nations have also moved to tackle some of these issues, but their steps seem piecemeal and preliminary. And in some cases, they are already out of date.

For example, France has a 2017 law that limits the number of phone calls and emails outside of the office, but that now seems irrelevant for the post-COVID-19 workplace future.

Spain seems more up with the times and has already approved decrees, making employers liable for workplace costs at home.

Revisiting the labor-employer divide

Some of the arguments on this issue come back to the old labor-employer divide.

Critics of the German legislation say that it needs to include provisions for collective bargaining because remote workers will be isolated from each other and won’t argue their case over wages and conditions as effectively. Employer groups, unsurprisingly, say this is nonsense.

From the employer side has come the suggestion that salary and conditions should be based around postcodes. If someone lives in a postcode with a cheaper cost of living, shouldn’t they be paid less than someone who lives where costs are higher?

This has been suggested at Facebook, where employees can request a permanent change in their jobs to choose remote work.

As announced by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, the trade-off is that compensation will be calculated based on an employee’s locality.

Facebook has a goal of 50% of its people working from home, so the implication of that may be a lower wage bill.

That might sound like a typical negotiating trade-off, but it is not too far away from the concept of offshoring to cheaper countries. Does this mean that Facebook will start to hire people from outside of its traditional areas based on cost?

Rules need to catch up

So many questions remain about the new world of remote working. If anything is clear, it is that the new rules are yet to be formed.

The world has undergone rapid change, and the new rules are lagging behind. We are still struggling to understand how to deal with issues such as leadership and culture changes in the remote working future.

However, the fact that legislators are becoming involved is evidence that the changes are profound, and new rules are needed for the unknown future.

Getting the balance right and not messing things up, both for workers and organizations is the tricky part.

Image credit: iStockphoto/millann