As the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak made working from home the norm for millions of workers in the EU and worldwide, a new JRC analysis explores the challenges that countries, employers and workers are facing in adapting to the new work-from-home environment.
On the basis of pre-outbreak and foreseeable future trends in the prevalence of telework across EU countries, sectors and occupations, JRC scientists help inform policies supporting the important role of telework in preserving jobs and production in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.
Telework has reached a tipping point as more and more companies and institutions have introduced this work arrangement in an effort to keep their employees safe, while ensuring the continued delivery of critical services.
Yet, differences in prior telework experience and other factors make the transition more challenging for some workers, employers and EU countries than for others.
Taking stock of pre-outbreak trends, JRC scientists note that telework had already been increasing over the past decade, albeit at a slow pace and mostly as an occasional work pattern except for the self-employed.
They also found a higher prevalence in knowledge- and ICT-intensive services, whereas much fewer teleworkers were found in administrative and support services, or in sectors that require physical interaction such as manufacturing or face-to-face interaction with the public.
High-skilled professionals and managers in knowledge-intensive activities were already quite used to working from home, as they do most of their work on computers and enjoy high degrees of autonomy.
In contrast, occupations such as customer services clerks, keyboard clerks, and junior professionals had much lower access to telework, despite an often similarly intensive use of computers at work, as a closer monitoring and supervision of their performance leaves them with less autonomy over their working time and place.
Those disparities in access to telework add to existing dimensions of income inequality and the pandemic only exacerbates the divide between those who can easily transition to working from home and those who cannot.
From a national perspective, JRC scientists also found large differences in the pre-outbreak telework prevalence and growth across EU Member States. Countries in Northern Europe showed the largest growth in the prevalence of telework over the past decade, albeit sizable increases also took place in other Member States, notably in Portugal, Estonia, and Slovenia.
Differences in industrial structures are a decisive factor, but also differences within sectors, the distribution of employment by company size, the rate of self-employment and of course workers’ digital skills come into play to explain the varying prevalence of telework across EU countries.
While there are still no precise figures on the scale of teleworking during the COVID crisis, there are some early estimations that suggest a much larger prevalence than before the crisis. An ad hoc online survey fromEurofound (2020) estimated that close to 40% of those currently working in the EU began to telework fulltime as a result of the pandemic.
For comparison, before the outbreak just 15% of the employed in the EU teleworked regularly or occasionally. A recent JRC study took a different approach and provided a rough estimation of approximately 26% of employment in sectors in which the physical presence of workers is not essential for maintaining activity, and thus are likely to be teleworking in the context of the COVID crisis (especially during the confinement periods).
Ultimately, the spread of telework in the longer-term will depend on a broad range of factors, including its effect on productivity and working conditions, as well as its contribution to broader policy objectives such as Europe’s digital and green transitions.
Evidence suggests that in normal times people working from home can sustain, or even enhance, their productivity, while enjoying a better work-life balance.
Yet, under the current exceptional circumstances productivity, working conditions, or both, may be deteriorating for many workers due to, among other problems, lack of childcare, unsuitable working spaces and ICT tools.
Policies to support the transition to more widespread remote work will need to carefully consider the potential benefits and costs for productivity, job quality, and workers’ work-life balance and mental health.
Related and future JRC work
As part of a comprehensive effort to assess the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and related containment measures, the JRC has launched a series of projects focusing on key labour market implications of the crisis.
Building on already published work on the employment impact of the confinement measures, a forthcoming study will address the pressing issue of identifying with precision the occupations that can be carried out from home.
This will be done through the development of a theoretical framework, which will be used for generating indices of teleworkability across occupational titles (from European sources) that can be linked to employment data for the EU.
Another forthcoming study will assess the implications of the massive shift towards telework for work organisation, job quality and work-life balance on the basis of recent literature on the issue as well as a qualitative study based on semi-structured interviews with workers who are teleworking as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
See also a previous report: The changing nature of work and skills in the digital age
Science for Policy briefs: Telework in the EU before and after the COVID-19: where we were, where we head to
- 22 Juni 2020