Telework

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Karolus Kraan, Merle Blok, TNO, the Netherlands


Introduction

This article gives definitions of telework, presents facts about the prevalence of telework in Europe, and addresses the relationships that have been reported to exist between telework and productivity and well-being. Special attention is paid to psychosocial factors that moderate this relationship. Frequently addressed topics in relation to telework will be discussed, such as the effect on job satisfaction, work-life balance, and the psychosocial effects of ergonomic and environmental working conditions. Finally, this article highlights the European Framework Agreement on Telework of 2006 by the European social partners.

Description and characteristics

Definitions

Telework can generally be defined as a new way of working, with employees performing work activities which previously were usually carried out at a central work location (office), but which are now carried out remotely from the employer or contractor. Moreover, the work activities require the use of information and communication technology (ICT) [1]. At the EU level in 2002, the European social partners signed a Framework agreement on telework (extensively elaborated in section 6). Within the Framework, telework and its scope are defined as: “a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employer’s premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis. The agreement covers teleworkers. A teleworker is any person carrying out telework as defined above”.

Telework is also often described or assimilated with ICT Based Mobile Work. ICT contributes to the organisation of work and the work environment by providing flexibility in terms of location and time and making constant connectivity possible. Eurofound and the ILO define Telework/ICT Based Mobile Work as a work arrangement characterised by working from more than one place, enabled by ICT. A distinction is made between four categories of teleworkers based on the degree of mobility, the use of ICT and the employment status: - regular home-based: employees who frequently use ICT to work from home; - highly mobile: employees who frequently use ICT to work and have a high level of mobility; - occasional: employees who occasionally use ICT to work from locations other than their employer’s premises; - self-employed: self-employed workers who occasionally or frequently use ICT to work from locations other than their own premises [2] [3].

This definition emphasizes the use of ICT and the fact that, as a result, the work can be done anytime, anywhere. Other terms such as "telecommuting' which is also used in the US, as well as in India and Japan, refer to work that makes commuting unnecessary. Nilles [4] was the first author who used the term ‘telecommuting’, long before the mobile phone, laptop computers and wireless internet were commonly used in work. Other terms that are sometimes used are ‘(remote) e-work’ and ‘distributed work’. 'Distributed work' refers to arrangements that allow employees and their tasks to be shared across settings away from a central place of business or organisational location [5]. The term ‘e-work’ has been generally used to describe work that is conducted virtually by employees who work and communicate mainly through electronic mediums (e.g., corporate intranets and e-mails). Although, home-based e-work has traditionally been the most common type of remote working, more and more people work in more than one location [6]. ‘Remote e-working’ is a broader term, used to describe “work being completed anywhere and at any time regardless of location and to the widening use of technology to aid flexible working practices” [7]. According to this definition work can be conducted from home, company sites, hotels, and airports. Homework is sometimes seen as an equivalent of telework but there is a clear distinction to be made. Homework involves traditional manual work carried out at home, mostly by low-skilled workers and often paid by the piece. Home-based telework is a specific form of telework and refers to work performed at home using ICT [8].

Characteristics

What all of these decentralised work arrangements have in common is that they can provide workers with more flexibility and control with regard to where they perform a task. During the industrial revolution employees were bound to their workstation in order to be able to perform a certain task. In recent decades, European countries and Western society in general have changed from an industrial based way of working towards a more information based working (especially in service sectors). This, in combination with new technological possibilities, has made it possible for firms to unbind time and tasks from locations. Those who embrace or introduce teleworking, often have high expectations. On the one hand, they aim to increase flexibility and workers’ control opportunities on aspects such as working time and place of work in order to create more productive employees with higher job satisfaction. On the other hand, these proponents of telework aim to reduce operating costs by reducing the required number of square meters of office buildings [9]. Besides, telework is promoted as a means to reduce air pollution by decreasing commuter traffic, while also contributing to solving mobility problems. Moreover, telework can also be used as a mean to ensure business continuity. When workers can't be present in the workplace due to critical events such as extreme weather conditions, social distancing and isolation measures to fight epidemics (e.g. covid-19), natural disasters, ... telework offers opportunities to continue working. However, this requires solid planning and good communication. It's also important to ensure OSH support for these occasional teleworkers and offer tips on how to organise their workplace.

Prevalence of teleworking in Europe

Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, doesn't gather data on the prevalence of telework but based on an annual survey among enterprises (with 10 persons or more, but without the financial sector) Eurostat incorporates indicators on whether or not an enterprise provides mobile connections to its employees [10]. These indicators may be seen as a relevant proxy indicator on the organisations’ policy to allow employees to work remotely, including telework. The devices assessed by the indicators, can also be seen as enabling advanced forms of telework, i.e. mobile work using portable devices. At least, these proxies can be assumed to correspond with the ‘ranking’ of countries with regard to telework prevalence. Figure 1 shows the percentage of enterprises giving portable devices for a mobile connection to the internet to their employees (data for 2017). This percentage ranges from more than 90% in Denmark to 50% in Romania. The EU average is 70%.

Figure 1 - Enterprises giving portable devices for a mobile connection to the internet to their employees – EU28, 2017

Fig telework1.jpg

Source: [10]

More detailed data on the prevalence of telework can be derived from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) carried out every five years by Eurofound. In reports from 2017 and 2020 on Telework and ICT Based Mobile Work data are presented based on EWCS 2015 [2][3]. Around 19% of workers in the EU have Telework and ICT Based Mobile arrangements at work. Of these, almost half are employees who are occasionally mobile, while one-quarter are highly mobile employees. Across the EU, Telework/ICT Based Mobile work is most widespread in the Scandinavian countries and to a lesser extend in southern and eastern Europe (figure 2). The variations between countries can be explained by different factors such as the spread of ICT, geography and work culture, including managerial models.

Figure 2 - Percentage of employees doing Telework and ICT Based Mobile work in the EU28, by category and country

Telework fig2.jpg

Source: [2]

Studies on characteristics of teleworkers and their working conditions

The economic sectors with the highest proportions of workers with Telework/ ICT Based Mobile arrangements are information and communication, professional and scientific activities, financial services, real estate, and public administration (based on EWCS data 2015). These are sectors where access to ICT is high. Some differences can be noted with regard to the different types of Telework/ ICT Based Mobile arrangements. For instance, home-based telework is found mainly in education and highly mobile telework is dispersed across sectors but more concentrated in the wholesale and retail trade [3]. As regards occupation, regular home-based telework is taken up mainly by professionals (including teachers, for example), whereas the highly mobile group includes a relatively large share of technicians, as well as services and sales workers, and craft workers. The EWCS findings show that a higher share of men (54%) have a Telework/ ICT Based Mobile arrangements arrangement than women (46%). Within the different types of telework, men make up a greater share of highly mobile teleworkers, whereas more women than men are in the regular home-based group [3].

Based on employee surveys, Statistics Netherlands (CBS), for instance, showed that teleworkers were usually highly educated people, were relatively often in a supervisory position and were working long weeks, of more than 40 hours [11]. In a large recent Dutch study [12], based on four editions of the large-scale National Working Conditions Survey (NWCS) with a representative response of over 22,000 workers per year [13], teleworkers were relatively often highly educated, men, married or cohabiting with children and living relatively far away from their work, compared to non-teleworkers. Also, teleworkers turned out to be relatively often placed in a supervisory position.

Teleworkers worked more overtime and were (of course) often working with a computer. Regarding their working conditions, teleworkers experienced many degrees of freedom (autonomy) in their work and a lot of task variety. Moreover, they found their managers supportive. However, teleworkers also faced a high workload.

Sectors in which telework is particularly common, are the financial and commercial services, education and the public sector. Sub-sectors that stand out, are the ICT sector, of course, followed by the higher education sector. In sectors such as manufacturing, construction, healthcare, transport, catering and agriculture, teleworking is a relatively marginal activity [12]. Such differences, of course, are partly to do with the type of work that is more or less suitable for telework.

Associations between teleworking, employee well-being and psychosocial factors

It is often assumed that employees who have the possibility of teleworking, will experience a greater flexibility in the way they work with colleagues, experience more balance in their personal work situation and increased flexibility in working time [14]. However, working away from the office can also change the contact between colleagues and between employees and firms, which can result in loss of corporate affiliation. At the management level, this causes new challenges for the way managers evaluate performance and supervise employees [15] [16]. The literature also indicates the risks of telework, such as an increase of work-related stress as a result of bad workplace ergonomics in the place where work is carried out, and the loss of work boundaries. Due to the difference in definitions of telework in research studies, making a comparison of results is difficult. For instance, the threshold for telework frequency in which the organisation will identify someone as a teleworker, differs between studies and there are many assumptions about teleworkers and the practice of telework which influences the results [15].

Working conditions and related health, well-being and performance outcomes

Research showed heterogeneity with regard to where exactly a teleworker is performing work, which makes it impossible to generally address the effect of telework on ergonomic and environmental working conditions. The ways in which the teleworker has been given ICT equipment, such as a laptop computer and mobile phone, often remain unknown. Mobile ICT solutions allow people to work anywhere, including at home, in public places and on transport. Hand-held mobile devices are not ergonomically suitable for use for long durations and can cause injury to the upper limbs, neck and back. Homes, public places or transport may not be ergonomically suitable for work purposes either. It is not possible for employers to control such environments and it is also likely to be difficult to control how people work outside the office [17]. This is in line with the research suggestion that the effect of telework on workers’ health should not be studied alone, but in interaction with implementation aspects such as the available ICT resources, the role of the manager and the work environment [18].

Several studies support a positive association between telework and increased productivity [1]. This positive association has been questioned since performance is often based on self-reported work performance levels rather than on more objective evidence. However, there is also evidence that telework leads to not only greater self-reported productivity but also greater supervisor-rated performance [19]. Overall, research results suggest that teleworking is likely to be more good than bad for individuals [20]. There is a general view that it results in a net benefit for workers and in a positive effect on their health. Telework is related to more positive emotions, higher job satisfaction, more autonomy, greater commitment and less emotional exhaustion[6]. However, not all effects are positive, for instance, based on data from EWCS 2015, it has been concluded that health effects such as headache and eyestrain, fatigue and presenteeism, seem to occur more among teleworkers. Moreover also musculoskeletal disorders seem to be more prevalent among teleworkers. Working long hours with a computer, especially at home, is associated with a static and constraining posture, repetitive movements, extreme positions of the forearm and wrist, and with long periods of continuous work without appropriate breaks. Highly mobile teleworkers often use equipment in circumstances that don't meet ergonomic criteria [3].

Clear, unambiguous support for the effect of teleworking on health outcomes, such as sickness-absence and well-being, is still lacking [21]. A recent study [22], however, showed that telework decreased sickness absence, both among ‘average’ employees and among employees with a work handicap. In another recent study, access to teleworking predicted higher dedication to the job (being a dimension of work engagement) at follow-up (1 year later). The working condition ‘management by targets/output results’ moderated the effects of teleworking on dedication: the combination of access to teleworking and output management was found to have a positive effect. Importantly, when management by output did not coincide with access to teleworking, employees experienced less dedication [23].

Furthermore, there is some consistent support for the effect of teleworking on job satisfaction. A curvilinear (inverted U) relationship has been reported between the extent of teleworking and job satisfaction. This led to the suggestion that firms should try to find the right balance with respect to extent of telecommuting [14].

Work-life balance

Telework can be instrumental to reach work-related goals. Generally, it provides employees with more flexibility to perform work roles and more opportunities to adapt working time and location the one’s personal situation. Also, time spent on travelling is reduced, which can lower work stress, travel stress and work-life conflict [24] [25] [26]. Because telework enables workers to adapt the place and time of work to their individual needs, it offers much potential for improving work–life balance. Based on data from the EWCS (2015) it is demonstrated that employees who regularly telework from home report a slightly better fit between their working hours and their family or social commitments than employees who always work at their employer’s premises. In contrast, outcomes for the highly mobile group are less positive. These employees report lower scores on the indicators measuring work–life balance, including the fit between their working hours and their family or social commitments [3].

Due to new technological possibilities such as mobile phones and fast connectivity to business information, telework has rapidly changed in the last decade. This new way of telework may increase family-based interruptions and distraction from work. Teleworkers often experience greater pressure and expectations related to accessibility and availability for work from their employer and also from their colleagues.

Nevertheless, telecommuting did not show straightforward damaging effects on the quality of workplace relationships or perceived career prospects [1]. Researchers suggest that it is of great importance to take into account adoption time, and that the place where telework is carried out is important. Telework programmes are not necessarily ‘one size fits all’, and firms should differentiate in their job design by looking into the characteristics of their workers and the job tasks that need to be performed [27].

European Framework Agreement on Telework

At EU level in 2002, the European social partners ETUC (and the liaison committee Eurocadres-CEC), UNICE, UEAPME and CEEP signed a framework agreement on telework [28]. As indicated above, the definition of telework and its scope in the Framework are: “Telework is a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/ relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employer’s premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis. This agreement covers teleworkers. A teleworker is any person carrying out telework as defined above.” The report by the European Social Partners on the ‘Implementation of the European Framework Agreement on Telework´ states that the European social partners chose for the first time to implement their European framework agreement by their own means ‘in accordance with the national procedures and practices specific to management and labour’. The Framework Agreement confers the main responsibility for implementation on the signatory parties' member organisations at both national and sectoral levels within the different industrial relations systems. The Agreement was concluded in 2002 when the European Union consisted of just 15 Member States and only the social partners from those countries participated fully in European social dialogue. However, the social partners from the former candidate countries were already involved to some extent in the negotiation process and the signatory parties invited "their member organisations in candidate countries to implement this agreement". There was agreement among the social partners that the implementation process should be adapted to the procedures and instruments applicable under the national industrial relations systems. Traditional approaches to employer-worker relations and collective bargaining at all levels and to the role of legislation and contractual arrangements in each country had to be respected [8]

The agreement recalls that teleworkers enjoy the general protection afforded to employees. Hence, the intention was to define a general framework for the use of telework in such a way as to meet the needs of employers and workers. The agreement identifies the key areas requiring adaptation or particular attention when people work away from the employer’s premises, for instance data protection, privacy, health and safety, organisation of work, training, etc. At a national level, members of the signatory parties agreed on the instruments and procedures for implementation. They also disseminated, explained and transposed the European text in their national contexts between 2002 and 2006. Relevant OSH themes covered in the Framework include the following – presented here in a slightly summarised form [28].

Voluntary character

Telework is voluntary for the worker and the employer concerned. Teleworking may be required as part of a worker's initial job description or it may be engaged in as a voluntary arrangement subsequently. In both cases, the employer provides the teleworker with relevant written information in accordance with directive 91/533/EEC [29], including information on applicable collective agreements, a description of the work to be performed, etc. The specificities of telework normally require additional written information on matters such as the department of the undertaking to which the teleworker is attached, his/her immediate superior or other persons to whom she or he can address questions of professional or personal nature, reporting arrangements, etc.

Employment status

The passage to telework as such, because it only modifies the way in which work is performed, does not affect the teleworker's employment status. A worker’s refusal to opt for telework is not, as such, a reason for terminating the employment relationship or changing the terms and conditions of employment of that worker. If telework is not part of the initial job description, the decision to pass to telework is reversible by individual and/or collective agreement. The reversibility could imply returning to work at the employer's premises at the worker's or at the employer's request.

Employment conditions

Regarding employment conditions, teleworkers benefit from the same rights, guaranteed by applicable legislation and collective agreements, as comparable workers at the employer's premises. However, in order to take into account the particularities of telework, specific complementary collective and/or individual agreements may be necessary.

Privacy

The employer respects the privacy of the teleworker. If any kind of monitoring system is put in place, it needs to be proportionate to the objective and introduced in accordance with Directive 90/270 on visual display units.

Work equipment

All questions concerning work equipment, liability and costs are clearly defined before starting telework. As a general rule, the employer is responsible for providing, installing and maintaining the equipment necessary for regular telework unless the teleworker uses his/her own equipment.

If telework is performed on a regular basis, the employer compensates for or covers the costs directly caused by the work, in particular those relating to communication. The employer provides the teleworker with an appropriate technical support facility.

Occupational health and safety

The employer is responsible for the protection of the occupational health and safety of the teleworker in accordance with Directive 89/391 [30] and relevant daughter directives, national legislation and collective agreements. The employer informs the teleworker of the company's policy on occupational health and safety, in particular requirements on visual display units. The teleworker applies these safety policies correctly.

In order to verify that the applicable health and safety provisions are correctly applied, the employer, workers' representatives and/or relevant authorities have access to the place where teleworking is being carried out, within the limits of national legislation and collective agreements. If the teleworker is working at home, such access is subject to prior notification and his/her agreement. The teleworker is entitled to request inspection visits.

Organisation of work

Within the framework of applicable legislation, collective agreements and company rules, the teleworker manages the organisation of his/her working time. The workload and performance standards of the teleworker are equivalent to those of comparable workers at the employers premises. The employer ensures that measures are taken preventing the teleworker from being isolated from the rest of the working community in the company, such as by giving him/her the opportunity to meet with colleagues on a regular basis and access to company information.

Training

Teleworkers have the same access to training and career development opportunities as comparable workers at the employer's premises and are subject to the same appraisal policies as these other workers. Teleworkers receive appropriate training targeted at the technical equipment at their disposal and at the characteristics of this form of work organisation. The teleworker's supervisor and his/her direct colleagues may also need training for this form of work and its management.

Collective rights

Teleworkers have the same collective rights as workers at the employer's premises. No obstacles are placed in the way of communicating with workers’ representatives. The same conditions for participating in and standing for elections to bodies representing workers or providing worker representation apply to them. Teleworkers are included in calculations for determining thresholds for bodies with worker representation in accordance with European and national law, collective agreements or practices. The establishment to which the teleworker will be attached for the purpose of exercising his/her collective rights is specified from the outset. Worker representatives are informed and consulted on the introduction of telework in accordance with European and national legislations, collective agreements and practices.

References

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  27. Kossek, E.E., Lautsch, B.A., Eaton, S.C., ‘Telecommuting, control, and boundary management: Correlates of policy use and practice, job control, and work-family effectiveness’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 68, 2006, pp. 347–67
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  29. Council Directive 91/533/EEC of 14 October 1991 on an employer's obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship. Available at: [8]
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Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Risk assessment for Teleworkers, E-facts 33, Available at: [10]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Foresight on new and emerging occupational safety and health risks associated with digitalisation by 2025, 2018. Available at: [11]

Eurofound and the International Labour Office (2017), Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, and the International Labour Office, Geneva. Available at: [12]

Eurofound (2020), Telework and ICT-based mobile work: Flexible working in the digital age, New forms of employment series, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. Available at: [13].