May you live (and work) in interesting times

As the coronavirus spreads across the world, institutions and companies are promoting smart working and remote activities as measures to mitigate the risks connected with the rapidly spreading disease. Will this flexible arrangement be adopted in modern workplaces beyond the emergency?

Author: Antonio Aloisi, Assistant Professor of European and Comparative Labour Law at IE Law School, IE University

The recent coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak is forcing public institutions, social partners and citizens to rethink their ordinary behaviors and practices in order to prevent the virus from continuing to spread. Public health authorities around the world are taking serious action to contain the COVID-19 epidemic. Recently – after the first case was detected in Codogno – Northern Italy has been severely impacted by the spread of the new virus. The Ministry of Health and the competent local authorities started to put into place a robust contingency plan during the third week of February.

Understandably, addressing the medical crisis has been the primary concern. In light of this, many cultural and sports-related mass gatherings have been canceled and all education activities suspended. The country is facing the harsh consequences of these necessary measures. But life goes on, and from these difficulties we can learn something about dealing with a potential outbreak. By adopting a labour law perspective, this brief article focuses on recent developments, policy initiatives and workplace plans.

Changing everyday habits

A moment of great anxiety and genuine confusion deserves to be dealt cautiously. While scientists and doctors work to combat the disease in the most appropriate way, people also need to be responsible. Indeed, since the virus knows no borders, all EU countries are defining cohesive strategies to face the emergency, not only from the point of view of health. According to technical guidance issued by the World Health Organization, long term and decisive success cannot be taken for granted.

However, all members of our society – including businesses, employers, and workers – must play their part if we want to mitigate the risk of the contagion. A smooth shift in our habits can support and facilitate the efforts carried out by public authorities. Every day we share common spaces at work, on public transport, and while we enjoy our hobbies. As work and professional activities represent one of the most crucial dimensions of our daily lives, corollary restrictive measures are offering an unexpected (and unsolicited) prospect for offsetting the impact of the virus.

Authorities and firms must be prepared in case COVID-19 makes it way to their community. In this respect, there are numerous wide-ranging initiatives that can offer managerial solutions for this period of inevitable difficulty. Of course, not all businesses are the same and we must accept the idea that some things are going to change (industries such as manufacturing, tourism, logistics, and leisure may face a particularly difficult situation) – although this will hopefully be limited to a short period. However, given the rising relevance of the tertiary sector, promoting smart working and remote activities can limit disruption and make all workers who cannot reach the workplace comfortable when executing tasks from home. “Smart working” – also known as “agile working” and often confused with one of its predecessors, namely “tele-working” – is a flexible modality offering the chance to complete work-related tasks from anywhere and at any time. This innovative working pattern emerged thanks to the rapid development of digital tools that are revolutionizing everyday work and life.

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A more human-centered approach to work

Smart working has recently been introduced in France and in Italy as an arrangement that can be carried out away from the employers’ premises thanks to laptops and smartphones. In addition, the Spanish Labour Code lays down specific provisions for “trabajo a distancia”. This option, aimed at sustaining effective work-life balance, is not as popular as one would expect. Very recently, though, the Ministry of Labour published new guidelines encouraging “teletrabajo” as an extraordinary measure complying with all statutory provisions on working time and wages.

In 2017, the Italian government introduced lavoro agile in order to stimulate competitiveness. This working pattern is designed as a flexible solution agreed upon in writing between an employee and their employer, and complies with all working time requirements. The Italian government decided to streamline existing red-tape obligations as an exceptional measure.

During the same year, French law included the possibility of extending the voluntary option of télétravail “in the event of exceptional circumstances, in particular of threat of epidemic, […] to allow the continuity of the business activity and to protect employees.” Such legislative frameworks paved the way to several far-reaching collective agreements, including company-level ones, and codes of conducts which define specific rules.

After a preliminary moment of reluctance and distrust, this modern pattern is picking up steam as a solution that accommodates the needs of flexibility for both employers and employees. After careful consideration of all its implications, it is important to keep in mind that technological solutions can alleviate hurdles, but they are not neutral.. In short, what modern workplaces need for a decent future of work is an organizational redesign carried out with a human-centered approach. This recommendation is valid not only in times of emergency. In fact, one cannot claim that a well-equipped laptop could solve all problems. Virtual meeting rooms and collaborative environments are merely tools.

We should seize this unsought opportunity by reinforcing social values such as adaptability, solidarity, and responsibility. This can only be done if we implement organizational policies putting people at the center.

Business lessons to be learned in trying times

Companies need to develop new resilient strategies. Working remotely results in changes to a company’s workflow. This means that the performance is not “trapped” within the location-dependent constraints of a “9-to-5” job but, at the same time, it implies that commitment should be assessed in terms of outcomes and not simply as a factor determined by physical attendance. This pattern can be successful only if a workplace culture of trust, engagement and accountability is in place.

The difficulty in supervising working environments and performances outside the employer’s premises also raises major challenges when it comes to applying OSH prevention principles, health and safety legislation and data protection rules. In light of the recommendations of the Eurofound and the International Labour Office, to fully harness the potential of smart working and advance the working conditions of the workers involved, training and awareness initiatives are desirable for both employees and managers. These schemes should focus on the sustainable use of tech and its potential shortcomings, as well as effectively managing the freedoms extended to employees.

If the aim is to underpin or even increase productivity, it is crucial to implement flexible arrangements designed in such a way that we do not abandon the overarching principles governing our professional interactions. In the hope that exceptional circumstances can be overcome soon, all parties involved can seize this unsought opportunity by reinforcing our social values at the “porous” workplace: adaptability, solidarity, and responsibility. This can only be done if we implement organizational policies putting people at the center.

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Antonio Aloisi is an assistant professor of European and Comparative Labour Law. Prior to joining IE University, he was a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, and an academic fellow at Bocconi University, Milan. His research focuses on forms of work in the so-called “platform economy,” the effect of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and algorithms on labour regulation, and new processes of collective action.

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.