Teleworking has surged during the pandemic. New forms of autonomy have been glimpsed, as well as new forms of control.
Despite the increased possibilities for remote working brought about by the decades-old digital revolution, telework has only taken off in the European Union in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. The public-health requirement to reduce social interaction at work has led to a massive increase: the proportion of employees in the EU regularly working remotely from home has surged from 5.4 per cent in 2019 to 30 or even 40 per cent, according to recent estimates.
This great, and sudden, leap in the adoption of telework since the spring has seen millions of workers working from home for the first time. They have had to make this transition quickly—to adapt to new digital and collaboration tools and new ways of communicating with co-workers, supervisors and clients. In some cases, they have had to do so without having a suitable working space at home and meanwhile having to take care of young children. Against this challenging backdrop, understanding how the forced shift to teleworking has affected workers’ personal and professional lives is key.
While differences across countries on the technical feasibility of telework crucially depend on their sectoral specialisation, the gap between its potential and actual use can only be partly explained by differences in the adoption of enabling information-and-communication technologies. Differences in work organisation and work values also matter. A new study by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission investigates how the sudden expansion of telework in spring 2020 has affected the organisation of work, how workers have reacted and coped with the new situation and the impacts on various dimensions of job quality and work-life balance.
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The onset of the pandemic clearly showed that the number of people who could work remotely was much greater than before the outbreak. While teleworking had traditionally been mostly the prerogative of high-skilled, high-paid, white-collar occupations, during the Covid-19 crisis it has extended to many mid- and low-skilled administrative and clerical occupations. From a technical perspective, all these workers perform similar types of tasks (involving information processing and non-physical social interaction) and use similar tools (ICT), and thus are susceptible to telework.
The differences among them are mostly a matter of hierarchy and organisational practices: degrees of work autonomy, levels of task standardisation and forms of control. Having conducted more than 70 in-depth interviews during April and May, in France, Italy and Spain, we found that teleworking on its own did not affect task content—what people did. But it changed quite significantly work organisation—how people did their work—as well as workers’ wellbeing and perceptions of job satisfaction and motivation.
The impact of telework on work organisation changed as workers and firms adapted to the new reality. At the very beginning of the transition to telework, there was a clear increase in autonomy at work across all occupational groups. The high initial uncertainty and even absence of guidance from the hierarchy often resulted in the spontaneous creation of horizontal mechanisms of co-ordination, organised by workers themselves, using ICT tools from their homes. Hierarchies often tried to reproduce direct, more traditional mechanisms of control using digital platforms or phone calls, but these did not appear very effective in a context of generalised remote work.
The progressive stabilisation of remote work tended however to restore managerial control and supervision, which mutated from direct to bureaucratic or platform-based forms of control, often leading to procedural standardisation and so routinisation of work activities. Forms of remote digital control, requiring the installation of software as well as (monitored) connection to corporate virtual private networks, also became increasingly used as the outbreak-induced telework surge unfolded.
Our qualitative study also found significant differences in how telework has affected job quality, depending on the indicator considered and, again, the respondent’s occupation. In many cases, the shift from face-to-face personal interactions to communication mediated through digital platforms challenged the possibility to receive meaningful feedback, exchange ideas and seek information and guidance from supervisors or colleagues. This negatively affected workers’ job satisfaction and motivation, especially of those in occupations rich in social interaction.
For some clerical and administrative workers, however, remote communication filtered-out office-based distractions and part of the direct control exerted by supervisors, which made these workers more satisfied and motivated with their job. Less ambiguous outcomes concern potential risks to physical and mental safety, underlined by most of the respondents, related to isolation, lack of movement and bad postures.
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Finally, as expected, workers’ assessment of work-life balance under the new work arrangement strongly depended on household composition, rather than occupational status. Workers with young children felt less productive and satisfied since they were more often interrupted, while they complained about blurring boundaries between family and working time.
Despite the many challenges of adapting suddenly to obligatory and high-intensity telework, most respondents could see upsides and would be willing to work remotely in the future, at least occasionally. Before that, however, workers would like to see greater clarity around their conditions as teleworkers.
Although our study refers to the early stages of a global pandemic and some of the findings might be specific to this very peculiar context, it covers a wide spectrum of items characterising everyday work relationships. As remote working is likely to remain significant after the Covid-19 crisis, the issues could be pivotal for working conditions and the reshaping of social relations under the ‘new normality’.