The pandemic has changed habits. For obvious reasons, the use of online services (e-commerce, food delivery, remote learning and telework) increased considerably during the initial months of the lockdown (Mckinsey, 2020), and the outlook indicates that deliveries will continue to grow, at different rates, after the virus.
The extension of telework brought on by the pandemic has been the most visible labor-related effect of the lockdown. The shock wave caused by its implementation has been felt in a number of areas: a drop in lunches served at restaurants, the collapse of rentals in large cities caused by abandoning office spaces, moving to smaller population centers with the subsequent revitalization of their activity, a reduction in the use of transportation o an increase in co-working guided by the philosophy that work needs to adapt to the lives of the employees and not the other way around, are just some of the consequences.
A number of companies in sectors that allow it have transitioned to telework in just a few weeks. Implementing this option responds to an effort to keep the employees safe, while guaranteeing that key services are still provided. In short, the quick arrival of telework is due to its ability to maintain a company’s operations and to continue its inertia during the pandemic.
Section 5 of Official Decree-Law 8/2020, of March 17, on urgent extraordinary measures to weather the economic and social impact of COVID-19 establishes the priority nature of remote working whenever technically possible. This is an exceptional, limited-time measure.
The data seem to indicate that the “exceptional, limited-time measure” could be here to stay.
Compared to 2019, the number of people regularly teleworking in Spain is 3.2 times greater in 2020, from 915,800 to 3.01 million people. The data eloquently illustrate the massive increase in regular teleworkers.
Graph 1. Evolution of the number of employees who regularly telework
Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, the number of companies offering telework options to their employees was 5%; by May 2020, it was offered by 34% of the companies. This “leap” in the implementation of teleworking led to the enactment of Official Decree-Law 28/2020, of September 22, on remote working, which went into effect on October 13, 2020. Given the massive implementation of telework during the pandemic, the goal was to establish the minimum amount of telework to access this option, avoid occupational hazards from technostress and control the tendency of companies, in an effort to reduce labor costs during the pandemic, to hire teleworkers as independent contractors, instead of regular employees.
In line with the content of the preceding regulations (2002 European Framework on Telework, revised in 2009, Law 3/2012, Organic Law 3/2018), Official Decree 28/2020 reinforces certain aspects related to workers’ freedom to choose their own hours, within reason, and guarantee a work-family balance and compensation for expenses and the provision of working resources and tools. Meanwhile, in order to consider an employee a teleworker, they must spend at least 30% of the day working remotely during a period of three months. If that minimum is not reached, the company will not be obligated to compensate the worker for electricity, telephone and Internet expenses.
Finally, it develops the content related to occupational risk prevention (article 16), referring explicitly to “psychosocial, ergonomic and organizational” risks, article 17 dedicated to the “Right to privacy and data protection” and article 18 on the “Right to digital disconnection”. All of these are aimed at compensating the possible effects of technostress.
The telework regulation focused both on the needs of the company and on the vital importance of maintaining its activity during the pandemic, and on the wellbeing of the people could contribute to creating “decent and sustainable work”, in line with Sustainable Development Objective eight posed by the United Nations for the Agenda 2030, as well as for the construction of an inclusive digital economy in different areas.
The areas in which the implementation of telework will have a positive impact can be summarized in for key aspects.
First, as indicated in the General Directives of the National Strategy for the Demographic Challenge, remote working is essential to favoring population establishment and maintenance in rural areas, making it possible to revert the population drift. At the same time, it contributes to sustainable development by reducing mobility and travel in benefit of environmental health.
Second, in most cases telework could increase work autonomy, favoring the work-family balance. It is very important clarify in this point that, although it could facilitate balance, it is not clear that it favors joint responsibility in the distribution of care and time. This derives from the broad gender inequality in the home, especially with regard to caring for dependents during the lockdown. These examples show the importance of remaining alert to certain trends that COVID-19 is accelerating, which could have positive consequences, but also negative ones in the working world. Technological innovations help parents combine family responsibilities with work, enabling them to work more flexibly, which could lead to an increase in jobs for women and a reduction in gender differences in the job market, but it will not happen by itself.
Third, telework can contribute in the medium term to a change in the Spanish business culture. Telework is immediately demanding the implementation of more horizontal and less hierarchical structures, because the remote relationship requires greater delegation. Managers are forced to reduce control and increase collaboration and trust to apply a results-oriented management style. Evaluation systems based on meeting objectives strengthen the quality of work, regardless of the activity sector, because it increases the professionalization of employees. In Spain, extending this type of work can reduce the systematic use of external flexibility, while contributing to the transformation of labor into human capital.
The development of online structures can help advance in more cooperative leadership, using performance appraisals to break the remains of the “presenteeism” culture so prone, with its split workdays, to associating presence with productivity.
Finally, Official Decree-Law 28/2020 could contribute to putting the relative weight of telework in Spain more in line with the most prosperous countries of the European Union.
In 2019, in countries such as Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, the proportion of employees regularly working from home, or at least occasionally, was greater than 30%. In the middle, there were countries such as Belgium, France and Portugal where the proportion of telework ranged between 15% and 24%. In half the Member States, telework was less than 10%. Spain is on that lower end.
Graph 2. Prevalence of telework among EU Member States.
One of the key issues illustrated by the graphic is that the level of digital knowledge among workers varies considerably among the countries of the European Union, and it tends to be lower in the countries in which telework has a smaller presence. Workers with more solid digital knowledge are better equipped to respond to the demands of working remotely during the current crisis.
In the medium term, the implementation of telework, precipitated by the coronavirus crisis, well favor the digital and ecological transitions that contribute to configuring new meanings for work and consolidating the new social contract.
The fact that not all work can be done remotely implies admitting that the benefits of telework are not available to all sectors, which could generate significant tension within the companies. This is particularly true in the case of many manual laborers or those with limited digital capabilities who, even before the pandemic, were in the worst-paid segments of the workforce. In the medium term, the COVID-19 pandemic runs the risk of exacerbating existing inequalities even further, as this profile of workers is most likely to lose their jobs, face reductions in working hours and great uncertainty with regard to income.
In this context, the continuation of income support measures continues to be key to protecting the livelihood of these workers. However, to the extent that the effects of the current crisis are maintained in the long term, the policies addressing professional restructuring and improved worker skills in the EU will also be important in guaranteeing the lifelong employability of the EU workforce and facilitating transitions for workers between different industries.
 The text of the Official Decree distinguishes between onsite work, remote work and telework. The latter is defined as a time of remote work “that is conducted exclusively or primarily by means of IT, telematic and telecommunication systems”.
 Following the lockdown, the initial results of different research projects came to light. One of them (published on The Washington Post’s portal “The Lily”) indicated that confined female scientists are submitting fewer articles for publication in journals that facilitate their professional promotion, compared to their confined male counterparts. The preliminary results from the study by Aguado and Benlloch indicate that telework intensifies care-related tasks for women, forcing them to manage not only their own time but facilitating the telework of their partners.
McKinsey & Company Global Institute (2020) Global surveys on consumer confidence during the coronavirus crisis, October 2020.
Milasi, S., González-Vázquez, I., Fernández-Macías, E. (2020) “Telework in the EU before and after the COVID-19: where we were, where we head to”. European Commission, Science for Policy Brief, 2020
Tags: Employment, Sociology, European Union, EU, Telework