The pandemic has brought the topic of health and wellbeing to the forefront, not least in the employment sphere. With an overnight move for many from office to homeworking, there was an increased focus on mental resilience, loneliness, and the blurred lines between work and rest, and between work and home life. Across the country, many employees suddenly had the opportunity to experience both the perks of working away from the office, as well as the detriments.
The pandemic has undoubtedly shifted us further away from a time where work was a place, to a time where work is an activity. We are seeing higher percentages of the workforce continuously working from home or remotely than ever before. We are also seeing the emergence of a ‘hybrid’ workforce; fluctuating a mix of home, remote and office working.
Despite this seismic shift towards a new future of work, and even a new future society, there have been no moves by the UK government to institutionalise the changes, nor to modernise the legal infrastructure to ensure ongoing protection of employee rights in light of the changes. In the UK, the experience at the individual employee level is very much left to the forces of supply and demand and the decisions of individual organisations.
Lawmakers in Portugal however have decided to take a different, more proactive, approach. New ‘right to rest’ laws have recently been implemented, with the aim of improving the work-life balance of employees, particularly in light of the expansion of working from home, triggered by the pandemic.
The Portuguese ‘right to rest’ laws apply to all organisations with 10 or more employees and include banning employers from contacting workers outside of office hours. Employers who do could face fines.
In an attempt to tackle wellbeing issues amongst homeworking employees, such as loneliness or isolation, the laws expect employers to organise regular face-to-face contact with their workers, at least every two months.
Additionally, employers will not be permitted to monitor their employees when they work from home, and workers who have children will also be allowed, under the new laws, to work remotely without prior approval, until their child turns eight.
Companies may also have to contribute to any higher household bills employees incur as a result of switching to remote working, such as energy and internet costs. Employers can write off these costs as a business expense.
Portugal's Minister of Labour and Social Security has said that remote working can be a “game changer if we profit from the advantages and reduce the disadvantages” and that its growth needs to be regulated. Further, the Portuguese government hopes that these enhanced employment protections will attract more remote-working foreigners to the country.
Law makers in Portugal have been very proactive and are looking to steer this extensive shift in work norms in a way that will ensure its benefits are maximised for Portuguese society as a whole.
Unlike Portugal, Britain appears to be taking a more reactive approach, relying on market forces to determine the work climate in the UK. Employers who want to attract and retain scarce talent may well need to be open to extensive homeworking, offering to pay for employees’ increased utility bills and ensuring family friendly policies and wellbeing practices are enhanced. Employees who find themselves less in demand may well have to work in a way they would not choose to. With an uneven situation regarding supply and demand, leverage will ultimately drive conditions.