Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, many have made the abrupt shift to working from home, while millions of others lost their jobs altogether. At the time, the future looked bleak—we didn’t know when, or if, our societies would return back to normal. All we could do was speculate about the kind of scars the pandemic would leave.
Fast forward to November 2021, and although the clouds of uncertainty seem to have cleared out with offices reopening their doors to their employees, a large majority of the world’s workforce carries on working from home for the time being.
As most of us have experienced it, working from home has its perks as well as its disadvantages—not having to commute while living with blurred work-life boundaries are two examples of the contrasting qualities that come with such a novel way of life. In an attempt at clarifying the latter’s need for balance, Portugal will soon introduce new labour laws approved by the country’s parliament.
Under the new rules, employers could face penalties for contacting workers outside of office hours. Companies will also have to help pay for expenses incurred by remote working, such as higher electricity and internet bills. Last but not least, employers will also be forbidden from monitoring their employees while they work at home.
The new rules are also good news for parents of young children, who will now have the right to work from home without having to arrange it in advance with their employers, up until their child turns eight years old. Measures to tackle loneliness are also included in the remote working rules, with companies expected to organise face-to-face meetings at least every two months.
That being said, a proposal to include the so-called “right to disconnect”—the legal right to switch off work-related messages and devices outside office hours—was rejected by Portuguese MPs who have instead decided to force employees to only contact their staff in times of emergency.
Portugal was the first European country to alter its remote working rules as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2021. The temporary rules made remote working a mandatory option (with a few exceptions) and obliged employers to provide the necessary tools for getting the job done at home.
But the amendments to Portugal’s labour laws have limits: they will not apply to companies with fewer than 10 employees. And while remote working during the pandemic has brought renewed flexibility to many, issues such as unequal access to IT equipment proved the need for the government to step in, Portugal’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, Ana Mendes Godinho, told the Web Summit conference in Lisbon last week.
“The pandemic has accelerated the need to regulate what needs to be regulated,” she said. “Telework can be a ‘game changer’ if we profit from the advantages and reduce the disadvantages.” Building a healthy remote working culture could also bring other benefits to Portugal, Mendes Godinho added, in the form of foreign remote workers seeking a change of scenery. “We consider Portugal one of the best places in the world for these digital nomads and remote workers to choose to live in, we want to attract them to Portugal,” she told the Web Summit audience.
Such changes in regulations in Portugal could soon lead the way for other countries to follow—making working from home just a tad more pleasant for employees worldwide.
Working from home has been one of the most drastic changes to most of our lives over the last seven months. The dining room and kitchen table that hardly ever served as a temporary workstation have now asserted their dominance in our homes, and makeshift desks have set up shop in peculiar spaces, hidden from flatmates or children. The process has taken us through a rollercoaster of emotions, excitement, resentment, fear, peace and not to mention the distractions that many have had to wrestle with. Like any change in life, we are accustomed to adapt to it. Have we adapted past the point of return? Will we work from home forever?
With signs that the threat of the virus was waning during the end of the summer, governments began encouraging employees to return to their business premises, with safety restrictions in place. In response, many workforces began filtering back to their lives before lockdown, and tensions around minimal social distancing decreased. Now, the virus is flaring up again, which is bound to cause another shift.
A part-time basis of at home and in office working has also become commonplace. We all seem to be settling into a rhythm around the concept of remote working, and therefore have become more flexible. A survey conducted in May showed that 55 per cent of US workers wanted a mixture of home and office working. In the UK, employers expect the proportion of regular home workers to double in coming months, from 18 per cent pre-pandemic to 37 per cent post-pandemic. In China, employment expert Alicia Tun predicted that in ten years time there will be a split as far as 60 to 40 per cent employees wanting to continue working from home.
Working from home has in many ways accelerated the increase of overall technology adoption, as we are forced to collaborate on an online basis daily, no matter what sector of previous employment. Organisations were challenged to reimagine communications, and were also forced into seeing the emotional impact of the change between colleagues.
Working from home allows countless distractions. The internet can waver, computers can break and children can interfere. As we rely on technology more, surprisingly we also seem to be faced with a more ‘human’ side of humans.
Organisations are becoming far more aware of the need for flexibility and empathy. Research finds that nearly half of people working from home reported managing these at-home distractions as a challenge, no matter their ranking within a company’s hierarchy. As humans we have had to face similar challenges simultaneously that were not necessarily out in the open before.
Evangelist and head of NEC consulting at NEC Asia Pacific, Singapore-based Walter Lee said in a statement that “We have all had to adapt to this work from home environment very quickly, If there was one social lesson learned, it’s that we have all become more connected in a sense, because everyone—the whole world—is going through the same situation.”
Companies are being managed in various ways, some have given employees permission to continue working remotely until at least 2021, others have recalled staff to the workplace with different schedules and groups to keep the numbers down. Some companies are leaving it up to the individuals to decide where to be based.
Each and every one of us has a very different way of working, for example timings as to when we work best, are critical to many regarding productivity performance. Some need silence, and some need noise. If companies continue to allow flexibility around physical presence in the workplace then this could only benefit the overall business more. The introduction of flexible, or in another word, ‘hybrid’ working has given the in-office workforce a taste of what could be. Because of this, it may never be the same again.
Hybrid working is the key to understanding a more flexible future, it generally grants more autonomy to the employees to fit around the rest of their lives, instead of their lives fitting around work. TechRepublic produced an interesting manifesto in collaboration with Microsoft on how we may transition into this hybrid way of working.
Before we start praising this new approach to work, it should be noted that it could also do more harm than good in many circumstances. The pandemic finally shed light on the enormous socioeconomic and racial inequality between who is able to work from home and who is not, and it can’t be ignored anymore. We all live differently, by choice or not, which is the most important factor we should consider going forward as we brace for an inevitable hybrid workforce all over the world.