“I’m trying to have a similar rhythm to what I have in the office,” said Ochoa, 39, an administrator at an art business in Madrid.
The “right to disconnect” predated the pandemic in much of Europe. The concept, first legislated in France in 2017, limits how much employees can be made to answer phone calls and emails outside working hours. But the massive shift to remote work this year — and the recognition that office life may never resume as it was — has Spain, Greece, Ireland and other European countries discussing how they can preserve worker protections when people are working from home.
Worker advocates say the always-on nature of remote work has turned pre-pandemic conversations with employers on their heads.
“Before covid, all of the emphasis of the discussion was to persuade employers that work was capable of being done from home,” said Ireland’s Esther Lynch, deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, an organization that represents labor union interests in Brussels. “Now with covid, we are beginning to see a growing concern among workers that they won’t be able to go back to the workplace, but that the new normal will be that the employer will like the idea of working from home, mostly as a way of saving money.”
In Spain, Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz said Thursday that she hoped to have measures approved soon requiring employers to pay work-from-home expenses.
“Remote work is no longer part of the future, but of the present of this country,” she told a local radio station.
Draft legislation circulated in the Spanish media would also establish a “right to a flexible schedule,” while setting clear hours when workers are expected to be available. The bill is expected to state that choosing to work remotely should not mean accepting a loss in pay, job stability or opportunities for promotion.
Greece, too, has drafted remote-work legislation. In addition to defining work hours and addressing expenses, the Greek bill would ban the use of cameras that some employers have adopted to make sure their employees were actually putting in their hours; require employers to respect the private lives of remote workers; and create a remote-work division within the country’s labor compliance agency. Policymakers are still discussing how to define overtime when people work flexible schedules at home.
Ireland, meanwhile, is in the middle of a public consultation process to draft guidelines for remote working, part of a broader push to encourage the habit even after the pandemic is over.
“Setting up my new home working station,” Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar wrote in July, shortly after he took the post, as he tweeted a photo of Dell computer boxes piled on a desk. “The Govt wants remote working to become part of the new normal. If done right, the benefits will be huge; reduced business costs, better work-life balance especially for parents, less traffic, lower emissions & time saved on the commute.”
The European efforts to ensure work-life balance contrast with the United States, where there has been much griping about the work-at-home challenges posed by the pandemic, but not much of a policy response.
The U.S. Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides for expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds salary. But that is only a temporary measure, and it excludes 68 million to 106 million private-sector workers, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
Unlike most European countries, the U.S. government has often had a light-touch approach to regulating relations between employers and workers, especially ones who earn a salary rather than an hourly wage. And many European societies put more emphasis on work-life balance in the first place.
That’s made the shift to remote work somewhat easier for Europeans. For many, unchaining from the office has been one of the least painful aspects of the pandemic.
But some workers and business owners say that the efforts to regulate work-life balance miss the reality that the pandemic upends everything about work and life, especially for parents with small children at home.
Ochoa said the hardest aspect of working from home for her and her husband was the sudden need to be home-school teachers to their 9- and 5-year-old boys, a challenge that work-life efforts cannot fully address.
“My company gave me all the facilities to work comfortably from home. I have no complaints at all,” Ochoa said.
“The problem comes from working with little kids at home,” she said. “Working from home with them means you are on all day long. Wake up and be with the kids. If I don’t want them watching TV all day long, I have to organize it and watch them. And I also have to work and have online meetings and cook their meals.”
Partly for that reason, almost all European countries, including Spain, have started some form of in-person schooling as summer turns into fall. In Spain, the back-to-school effort is underway, even though the country’s infection levels have surpassed those in the United States after retreating for most of the summer.
It’s an acknowledgment that even the most enlightened work-life balance effort cannot overcome the basic problem of child care and schooling.
“Remote working pretends that workers are in front of a computer for the same amount of time and at the same schedule,” said María Álvarez, 38, of Madrid, who scrambled to keep her event space and marketing business afloat this spring as the pandemic froze Spaniards in place.
She said she had to figure out loan applications, salaries and Zoom meetings at the same time she was keeping an eye on her two children, ages 2 and 5. Her husband, a paramedic, had to change his clothes in the lobby of their apartment building, then come upstairs and try not to touch anything in their 800-square-foot apartment.
“There is a lack of ideas out there, and my business partner and I, we found ourselves in this entire situation where we couldn’t carry on with our lives,” Álvarez said. “And we were supposed to ask the people in our companies to do it.”
She said that eventually, she and her business partner offered a four-day workweek to their employees, to try to give them more flexibility to handle everything else they were juggling at home.
“You have to consider that it is not possible to work and take care of your children at the same time,” she said, a situation she hopes to change next week as her children return to school.
Rolfe reported from Madrid and Birnbaum from Riga, Latvia. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.