New teleworking scheme: longer working days and more micromanagement?

During our 13 months of compulsory 100% teleworking for almost all of us, Generation 2004 has submitted to DG HR countless requests to start a dialogue on the conditions under which staff were and are expected to work from home – both in the current force majeure global-pandemic situation and when staff are able to go back to the office. DG HR finally reached out to the trade unions and staff associations (OSPs) for a social dialogue meeting focusing on teleworking (16 April) which we very much hope to be the first of many such meetings.

The draft proposal we received from DG HR was still in the form of a one-pager and lacking fundamental detail (e.g. specifications and conditions) and subject to both changes and negotiations. This document is considered confidential by DG HR, so we cannot share it with you yet. However, we have a duty to share some important considerations on its content, as it has major consequences for the organization of work at the Commission and the health and well-being of staff.

Although at first sight, some of the measures indicated in the proposal seem to go in the right direction and offer more flexibility, on closer look many fundamental questions touching upon the basic rights of workers and the possible degradation of our working conditions emerge. Here are the preliminary reflections we presented to the administration in the meeting.

Working hours

Generation 2004 is glad that the administration finally accepted the request we tabled a long time ago to abolish the obligation to register working hours – unless the hours worked are above or below the standard 8 working hours per day.

However, any change to core hours [1] poses a risk of imposing on staff longer working days or a standby/availability (particularly during teleworking) since they might be expected to be ready to work during a longer time period. Additionally, we wonder what will happen to those already allowed an exception (‘derogation’) to core time e.g. those in Luxembourg: will it be possible to ask staff to work till 19.00 if the line manager so decides when core time ends at 16:00?

Any new rules could significantly worsen our working conditions if not thought through thoroughly enough. For this reason Generation 2004 insists that HR consult widely enough to see any potential discrimination in actions before committing to them.  All timetable changes have the potential to harm some already-disadvantaged categories of staff, such as lone parents and those taking on the lion’s-share of household and family responsibilities, disproportionately women.

Furthermore, any approach giving more discretional power to managers, with no real flexibility for staff increases psychosocial risks, including burnout, stress, anxiety and yet more difficulties for anyone wanting to reconcile working time with rest time and private/family life.

Finally, the fundamental rights of workers, as enshrined in European labour law must be adhered to. Indeed, any inclusion of the concept of staff being available in an ‘emergency’ must be specific, limited and clearly set out  in order to comply with the applicable legislation (we already have issues with de facto unofficial uncompensated ‘voluntary’  standby duty being expected of certain staff.)

Generation 2004 calls once again for setting out of a right to disconnect for Commission staff, thus taking the lead in Europe and setting a clear example to Member States. In fact, last January the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution asking the Commission to propose a legislative framework to establish minimum requirements for remote work across the EU in order to clarify working conditions and ensure that teleworkers have the same the rights, workload and performance standards of other comparable workers. For the EP, the right to disconnect should become a fundamental right for workers all over Europe. It is time for the Commission to act and set the example starting from its own staff by establishing a right to disconnect that does not remain on paper but is effectively implemented!

‘Culture of trust and results’ completely missing

The ‘culture of trust and result’ that the administration constantly mentions is at odds with any approach whereby managers enjoy greater possibility to impose longer working hours. Currently we are free to declare any time worked from 07:00-20:30 so long as we do not exceed 10 hours in any one day. The new rules might instead require the agreement of the line manager for people to work before 08:00 and after 19:00. A new system might impose the obligation to be able to reach the office within 2 hours when teleworking and at the same time the obligation to telework even from abroad if recalled during leave: would we then be expected to travel with our laptops and work paraphernalia just in case?

Changing the current culture of control displayed by a number of managers at the Commission will require much more than some guidelines from DG HR advising managers to be flexible. It will require a complete cultural and behavioural shift that must be fostered not only by appropriate rules but also by training and concrete actions, together with ways to redress those situations where the rules are not properly or inconsistently applied.

What must be avoided

Staff health and well-being are our priority and we must ensure that changes to the rules are a real modernisation with enhanced flexibility, not an opportunity to lower standards and do things cheaper: degrading working conditions for staff while all the benefits are enjoyed by the administration!

Opening hours of crèches and schools

A fundamental question we asked during the meeting is related to the opening hours and location of crèches and schools. Any change to staff timetables must also take into account the opening hours of children facilities in order to avoid discriminating against those with childcare responsibilities. In addition, the location of such facilities might need to be thought over again: how can anyone be expected to bring children to the crèche located close to the office every day and then go back home – which may be 45 or more minutes away – to telework? And more fundamentally, might people with children be expected to habitually be available beyond core the end of core time?

Teleworking schedule and right to come to the office

The hot-desking environment is scheduled to have 7 or 8 workstations for every 10 people [2], this must also be considered when looking at how to allow people to work from the office if they so desire. See the latest hot-desking imposition: The ONE building (L107).

Very importantly, coming to the office must be a right, and any formulation indicating that someone preferring to go the office every day is not ‘comfortable’ with teleworking is unacceptable: we strongly oppose this paternalistic and discriminatory approach that goes against the basic rights of workers.

Teleworking from the place of employment and from abroad

The current idea of allowing teleworking from abroad for only 10 working days per year is very restrictive, even when compared to the practices in other institutions which are subject to the same Staff Regulations. Within the scope of the new HR Strategy, in November 2020 Generation 2004 already proposed that we be allowed 60 days per year – corresponding to the occasional teleworking days. Additionally, DG SANTE published a call for expression of interest for working  in Luxembourg from anywhere for ‘around 6 months’. If this works for 6 months, 60 days per year should be easily manageable.

There is an ongoing court case (ECLI:EU:T:2021:184 (French only), 13 April 2021) where a colleague at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) (Budapest), who wants the right to telework from the place of residence of the children, got a preliminary suspension to the the refusal by the director to do so. The case is still pending and nothing final has been decided yet. At this stage, only the person who brought the case to court can benefit from this order, so the practical implications are so far very limited.

Duty of care, health and safety,  and ergonomics

After many months, we are still in the dark as to what will be covered by the new package for teleworkers (the second reimbursement scheme, the one that was supposed to be made available before summer 2021): a chair, a desk, a docking station, a lamp, a wireless headset, a USB hub, 1 or 2 screens?

Ergonomics at home should be equivalent to ergonomics at the office if teleworking is on the same footing as office work: a chair, a screen and a docking station and mouse do not satisfy the minimum requirements for an ergonomic workstation. Other requirements include an ergonomic desk, a minimum number of m2, ventilation, natural light, noise levels, etc. Many questions remain also as to how this package will be delivered and how the Commission will ensure that the minimum conditions established to protect the health of workers will be respected.

Once again, we reiterate our request that the administration covers additional costs generated by working from home, including increasing expenses for utilities, ergonomic office furniture, printing, phone bills, etc. Importantly, the situation of colleagues with low salaries having to work from very small apartments/shared accommodation should also be taken into due consideration: not everybody can enjoy the luxury of teleworking from a large house with a nice garden!

This is only a general summary of our preliminary considerations on the proposal by DG HR on teleworking and our counterproposals. In the coming days and weeks we will continue working to address the additional issues raised by the proposal. As usual, do not hesitate to share your comments and ideas with us.

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[1] Standard core hours set out in the Commission Decision on working time: 09:30-12:00 and 15:00-16:30 (16:00 on Wednesdays and Fridays). Derogation granted under Article 4(2)(b) to DGs is for Monday to Friday: 09:30-12:00 noon and 14.30-16:00. Granted to the following DGs: DGT 14.04.2016; Eurostat, DG CNECT, DIGIT, EAC, MOVE/ENER, ESTAT, OIL, OP, PMO, DG SANTE 15.10.2014

[2] Apparently this is based on building occupancy pre-pandemic i.e. sickness, leave, telework, business trips (‘missions’) etc. But we all know that at least a little spare capacity is a necessity: no system will run optimally forever.