London, United Kingdom – Kiasi Sandrine Mputu has been working from her London apartment bedroom since the pandemic struck in March 2020. Like legions of crisis teleworkers around the world, she says the arrangement has its pros and cons.
“I love working remotely,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think I can ever come back [to] normal routine.
Deputy director of a London-based import-export company, Mputu’s home office is a testament to how personal and professional spaces can quickly become entangled with remote working: a desk with a computer screen provided by the company tucked away next to a drawer full of clothes that’s next to her bed.
Although she has adapted to the flexible sleep-work space, Mputu still struggles to feel isolated from her colleagues.
“I [sometimes] spend the whole week alone, ”she said.
Mputu says his employer occasionally hosts virtual social gatherings. But she wants the UK government to follow Europe’s lead and do more to support the mental well-being of remote workers like her.
But workers’ advocates want Europe to go even further – by ensuring that new remote working laws cover all employees, regardless of where they make a living.
Right to log out
In a major victory for a better work-life balance, Portugal last month put in place new regulations for the remote working era, including granting workers the “right to disconnect” by banning companies to contact employees outside of working hours, except in emergencies.
The new rules – designed to attract more “digital nomads” taxpayers to the country – also require businesses to help pay home gas, electricity and internet bills; prohibit them from monitoring their remote workforce; and require them to allow parents of young children to work from home without prior authorization.
But Portugal has not granted workers the right to turn off their devices and ignore messages from their bosses outside of working hours – a rule enacted by Italy earlier this year.
Progress is also being made in France and Germany, where employers are required to have a valid reason for refusing employees’ requests to work from home.
Trade unions and experts from the EU and UK welcome the momentum to advance the rights and well-being of remote workers, but want the new rules to go even further.
The stigma of flexibility
Experts say the explosion of remote working during the pandemic has shown just how outdated some labor laws have become.
The ‘right to disconnect’, for example, is a hot topic that precedes the pandemic, with France putting a pioneering law on the books in 2017. While other European countries have followed suit, the European Parliament is still pushing the European Commission will give workers across the bloc the right to turn off their devices when they are not at work.
Heejung Chung, a researcher on overtime and work-life balance at the University of Kent and author of The Flexibility Paradox, said that Al Jazeera employers contacted workers more frequently outside of formal working hours, as the lines between home and office are blurred, directing employees to work around the clock – a growing problem that the right to disconnect is designed to address.
Focusing only on homework rights would create further inequalities for those in jobs where homeworking is not possible
She also said remote workers are often burdened by the “stigma of flexibility,” where working from home is seen as less productive than office arrangements. This negative perception, she said, can cause employees to work longer hours to compensate.
Many workers’ rights advocates argue that the right to log off is just the beginning and that companies need to empower workers to set their own work schedules in order to promote a healthier work-life balance.
“Many of the limits imposed by labor laws on… [working] over time … [became] obsolete, ”Chung said.
Data cited by the European Trade Union Institute found that 27% of European remote workers were worried about their work when they didn’t actually do it, and 29% felt too tired after work to do some household chores. .
Not interrupting employees outside working hours “will not prevent these workers from suffering stress when they return to work,” Ignacio Doreste, adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation, told Al Jazeera.
Although Mputu feels lucky that her boss does not contact her after hours, she said she would rather set her own work schedule rather than be tied to one determined by her employer.
“At the end of the day, we’re home, so if I can do my job at night or in the morning, it wouldn’t really make a big difference,” she said.
All workers, not just remote
While many workers’ rights activists applaud the drive to empower remote workers, some fear that the focus on working from home will leave a large chunk of the workforce behind.
“Focusing only on homework rights would create further inequalities for those in jobs where homeworking is not possible,” said Frances O Grady, general secretary of the Congress of Trade Unions (TUC), the UK’s largest union.
A poll conducted by the TUC in June found that people in the UK in higher paying jobs were much more likely to have worked from home during the pandemic than those in working class jobs.
“All workers need enhanced rights to benefit from the full range of flexible work options such as flexible hours, predictable working hours and job sharing,” O’Grady told Al Jazeera, “Otherwise there will be a new class division, with some people having the flexibility they need and others being excluded.”
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