When Covid first spread to the UK, the only thing that might have topped the public consciousness more than the pandemic itself were debates about ‘working from home’. From its effectiveness and impact on office economies to the future of work itself, these debates have since been inescapable. But as cliché as it is, this shift in the way we work has completely changed what we understand as the rights of the worker—as well as what it means to work.
A huge number of jobs can’t be done remotely. Even during lockdowns, as many as 10.6 million people, or a third of the overall workforce, were employed in key worker industries. But more and more of are likely to be working from home in future. 37 percent of employees worked from home in some way during 2020, while almost a quarter of businesses have said they intended to do more remote working in coming years—and from corporate spying in your home to a broken work-life balance, that shift itself comes with an array of problems.
One solution is coming from Portugal. The Portuguese government has just passed new labour laws which it hopes will be a ‘game changer’ for the way remote working operates.
In its simplest form, the law does three things. First, it bans employers from monitoring workers at home. As Covid drove workers into their houses, an array of new invasive surveillance technologies that allowed their bosses to spy on everything from their online activity to their webcams and keystrokes saw a massive surge. The likes of ActivTrak, Time Doctor, Teramind, and Hubstaff have all seen leaps in popularity. One study of UK employees this month found that almost a third reported being electronically monitored, rising from the 25 percent who reported the same thing back in April.
Other apps like Gusto and Harvest, which track the time spent by employees on certain tasks, have also boomed. Some productivity software is even becoming automated—take the scrapped software from Barclays that would send automated messages to employees if they weren’t reaching peak productivity levels.
Second, the Portuguese law creates an impetus for employers contribute to expenses that workers have incurred as a result of switching to remote working. On the surface, this might seem like an odd request, since there are savings to be made from working at home, from daily travel to food. Commuting alone cost the average British worker roughly £66 a month before Covid.
But while those obvious costs were disappearing, new ones have arisen: in particular, increased internet, heating, and water bills, normally funded by your employer if it were in the office, come with a huge cost. Research has found that the nation’s energy bill will rise by nearly £2 billion this winter, largely thanks to rising costs and in part due to increased usage working from home. By Spring next year, the average remote worker will have seen their energy bill spike by some 18 percent, costing more than £700.
Finally, and potentially most importantly, Portuguese employers could now face penalties for contacting workers outside of office hours. One of the largest effects of the pandemic has been a complete flattening of the distinction between our work and home lives. Sitting at home working on a laptop makes it hard to naturally stop working, especially if your boss drops increasing tasks on you—and the impact can be devastating.
Research by Autonomy and the 4 Day Week campaign found that employee mental distress had risen by 49 percent from the pre-pandemic norm. Even before the pandemic the UK had the highest unpaid overtime rates in Europe, with two thirds of employees working longer than their contracted hours—on average just over six hours of unpaid labour a week.
The list of unfair consequences goes on and on, but there’s been little to no discussion from the UK government on how we might solve it. Even in Portugal, MPs rejected a call for a complete ‘right to disconnect’, an idea that places outright limits on work outside of normal hours.
Portugal is not the only country to legislate around working from home: Ireland and Germany have already passed laws allowing workers to request remote work as standard, while the UK is said to be considering similar changes. Portugal isn’t even the only country to focus on the need to limit outside-hours contact—France, Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and many more have passed similar laws. But what this new law does is explicitly link the two, creating a framework for how a more manageable post-pandemic working world could look.
This law is not perfect, but if working from home is to be the future for many, it at least shows a willingness to engage—to recognise that the face of work is fundamentally different now, and that that change is going to produce an array of challenges that need to be preempted, not ignored.