The difficulties of the teleworking police

AOFFICE LIFE is approaching a kind of new normal, remote working is here to stay. Employers benefit from savings because they spend less on office space and floor space. For employees, this is the promise of saving time: spared from travel, they can work and concentrate on their family and their leisure activities. At least that’s the idea. But, as many remote workers know, the line between work and personal life can blur.

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Some governments and employers are trying to redress the balance. In November, Portugal announced legislation which, according to Ana Mendes Godinho, its Minister of Labor, seeks to make the most of the teletrabalho (remote work) while reducing the inconveniences. Bosses are now prohibited from calling their employees “after hours”: those who make contact outside of previously agreed hours could be fined more than € 9,000 ($ 10,000). Employers are also required to provide remote work equipment and reimburse electricity and internet costs, and must hold in-person meetings twice a month, to help combat isolation.

Several European countries had put in place similar rules even before covid-19. In 2017, the “right to disconnect”, which allowed workers to ignore text messages, emails or calls from their boss without fear of reprisal, came into force in France. Italy followed soon after. Earlier this year, Ireland said workers can ignore late emails and calls.

However, it is not known whether the legislation can reduce the hours. Ambitious workers have a strong incentive to answer a call from their boss well after 5 p.m. in comparison, they have little to gain by reporting violations of the law and fining their employer.

Then there is the practical difficulty of agreeing on when workers should be reachable, which often remains to be negotiated between employer and employee. In France and Italy, there is no obligation to find an agreement. Apart from a widely publicized court decision in 2018 ordering a pest control company to pay € 60,000 to an employee that it had demanded to be reachable at any time in an emergency, the law has changed little in France. Even Ms. Mendes Godinho’s office contacted your correspondent at 7 p.m.

Maybe the change has to come from within. In Japan, where working less than 50 hours can be interpreted as a lack of commitment to work, half of all workers were already back in the office at least three days a week by April 2021. But even there, employers respond workers’ demands a better work-life balance. Fujitsu, a tech giant, has introduced flexible hours and allows remote working. Elsewhere, the number of remote service heads is multiplying. But few companies have gone as far as Volkswagen. For the past ten years, the German car manufacturer’s servers have ensured that employees covered by a collective agreement do not receive professional emails on their phones between 6.15 p.m. and 7 a.m.

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This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the title “Only Disconnect”

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