This article was published on November 4, 2022

Europe moves to protect WFH — as Musk does the reverse at Twitter

Calls for legal rights to WFH continue


Europe moves to protect WFH — as Musk does the reverse at Twitter
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

Elon Musk is causing consternation among his new employees. According to Bloomberg News, Twitter’s new owner is set to cut around 3,700 jobs – about half the company’s workforce.

Those who remain are also bracing for upheaval. Musk reportedly intends to scrap the platform’s work-from-anywhere policy and mandate returns to offices from Monday.

The U-turn has reignited calls for legal rights to work-from-home on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Musk’s mooted move would scrap a groundbreaking policy. In 2020, Twitter became one of the first tech firms to allow staff to work from home indefinitely.

The policy quickly proved popular with staff. In an internal survey that June, nearly 70% of employees said they wanted to continue working-from-home (WFH) at least three days a week. 

Twitter gave them further assurances this year. In March, the company reiterated the pledge to permit full-time remote work “forever.”

Musk, however, has been a vocal critic of the approach. In May, the world’s richest person demanded that staff at SpaceX and Tesla spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week.

A pro-Musk Twitter account, Whole Mars Blog, asked the entrepreneur what he’d tell people who think coming into work is an antiquated concept.

“They should pretend to work somewhere else,” he replied.

 

Musk is far from alone in calling for obligatory returns to offices. Supporters of the switch argue that WFH negatively impacts productivity, morale, and communication. Yet moves are afoot to take the decision out of their hands.

Legal rights

In Europe, many workers would balk at Musk’s demands. A 2021 survey of over 10,000 office-based workers across eight European countries exposed extremely negative feelings about ending WFH. The study found that most employees want mandatory work from offices to be illegal.

Some 75% of respondents would support legislation making it illegal to be forced to work from the office.
Some 75% of respondents would support legislation making it illegal to be forced to work from the office. Credit: Okta

Their hopes may not be in vain. While US federal labour laws don’t yet include a right to flexible working, a range of countries in Europe are making moves to protect it by law.

A recent EU report found that 10 states in the bloc have adopted new regulation on telework since the start of the pandemic. Among them is the Netherlands, which is poised to make WFH legal right.

In July, the lower house of the Dutch parliament approved legislation that would establish home working as a legal right. If the new rules are passed by the Senate, employers will be forced to consider requests to work from home, as long as the jobs allow it.

Eurofound, an EU agency dedicated to improving living and working conditions.
Eurofound, an EU agency dedicated to improving living and working conditions, recently mapped the regulation of telework across the bloc and Norway. Credit: Eurofound

Spain has also introduced legal rights for remote workers, while Italy has regulated “agile work” since 2017. Italy’s rules were rarely used until the COVID-19 outbreak, when the government used the regulation to combat the virus.

“By no surprise, even after the ‘return to the normality,’ the majority of the illuminated employers have chosen — or, sometimes, been forced to by their employees — to consider the agile work as an essential part of their organization and a powerful tool to attract talent,” said Michele Bignami, a partner at the law firm Advant.

In Germany, meanwhile, a new law is being drafted that would enshrine a right to request remote work. The employer would only be allowed to decline because of operational reasons.

Employees’ enthusiasm for mobile working is decreasing.

Markus Künzel, a Munich-based head of employment law at Advant, says acceptance of WFH in Germany varies between companies.

“The possibility to work from anywhere, even from abroad, is a benefit that can satisfy existing employees as well as attract new professionals and highly qualified workers — also from abroad,” he said.

“At the same, however, we see that the employees’ enthusiasm for mobile working is decreasing in the current crisis period and that many employees would like to return to the office also with regard to the increased costs at home.”

Indeed, not every move to protect remote working in Europe has been welcomed.

Mixed reactions

In the UK, a new Flexible Working Bill has raised concern from experts.

“Giving people the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment doesn’t make a jot of difference when the reality of ways of working often aren’t revealed till much later,” said Molly Johnson-Jones, founder of the Flexa Careers, which has advised Depop, Esports Technologies, and Carwow on flexible working policies.

“It also doesn’t mean that employers have to respond, but may well create tension between employees who make flexible working requests, and companies who wriggle out of accommodating them.”

Johnson-Jones is particularly worried about the impact this will have on workers with caring responsibilities or disabilities.

All employers have a duty of care.

Legal experts have emphasised that employees must provide a safe workplace for remote workers. This can encompass a range of requirements, from providing secure equipment to ensuring compliance with regulations, such as GDPR.

“All employers have a duty of care to provide their staff with a safe working environment, even if this is their home address,” said Paul Kelly, head of the employment law team at Blacks Solicitors.

That might not be a priority for Elon Musk, but other bosses are more amenable. Amid a global shortage of tech talent, legal protections on WFH could give European firms a rare edge in the labour market.

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