Before the coronavirus pandemic, working from home was seen as the model of the future. During the worst months of the health crisis, and in particular, during the home lockdown, companies resorted to this practice as the only way to keep activity going, prompting a flood of images on social media of improvised offices in households. Now that a certain degree of normality has returned, many staff in Spain are back in the office. There are a number of reasons for this, and they vary from case to case. However, sources consulted by EL PAÍS all agree on one thing: the law that was passed by the Spanish government in September 2020 to regulate home working has limited the flexibility available to firms and obliges them to cover costs that not all are prepared to assume. The result is that remote working is losing momentum after months in the spotlight, and has once again receded into the distance as a future goal.
“At the start of the lockdown people were thrilled, but then they saw that it wasn’t all so pretty,” explains María Rivero, an Italian translator and mother of two who has been working from home in Ciudad Rodrigo in Salamanca for the last nine years. Five years ago, she created a blog called sobreviviratrabajarencasa.com (or, surviving working from home). On it, she explains how to deal with the mixing of home life and the workplace. “Remote working does not favor work-life balance, quite the opposite,” she argues. “I’ve lost clients because I couldn’t look after my daughters and my jobs.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, home working was fairly uncommon in Spain. According to the National Statistics Institute (INE), 31% of staff would work remotely at some point before the health crisis. However, the Active Population Survey (EPA) details that just 4.8% would do so around half of their working days, which is well below countries such as the Netherlands (14%), Finland (13.3%) and Luxembourg (11%). In Spain, there was a legal vacuum in terms of an agreement between companies and employees, whether on a collective or individual basis.
Given the arrival of the pandemic, however, home working practically became the norm for those who were able to do so. During the states of alarm declared by the Spanish government, nearly 47% of staff were teleworking according to the INE. And in the first quarter of this year, 35% were planning to do so – that’s to say, the figure had risen by just four percentage points compared to the pre-pandemic level.
What’s more, it is yet to be seen in the official figures the effect that the return to near normality will have had in Spain after the summer vacation. According to experts, the level of homeworking is expected to be greater than that pre-Covid, but below the peak seen during the lockdown. The INE has figures about the percentage of staff who home work at some point, but not those who do so based on a specified proportion of their working week, as the home working law specifies. That’s to say, its data will be above the true number of people who are observing the new legislation.
It makes no sense that home working in the near future be like what we have been doing during the pandemic
Eva Rimbau, adjunct professor of economic and business studies
The home working law recognizes that currently, “more than home working, what exists is remote and flexible working.” The legislation defines this as someone who spends at least 30% of their hours working from home during a three-month period. What’s more, it obliges the two sides to sign a written agreement on the conditions, which are voluntary and reversible. And the company must cover the costs incurred by the employee for working remotely.
“The development of distance working must be covered or compensated by the company, and must not involve the assumption on the part of the working person of the costs related to equipment, tools and resources linked to the development of their work activity,” reads the text published in the Official State Gazette (BOE) on September 23, 2020.
“Remote working during the pandemic was one of the first measures that was taken,” explain sources from the Labor Ministry. “What was done was a search for a solution for the future, adapting to new times, to the 21st century. In fact, the law allows for those who were already remote working during the pandemic to continue to do so without a labor agreement. The law is for the new agreements and the old ones, but with an adaptation period.” The sources argue that the law “does not have little flexibility, but quite the opposite – 30% allows for semi-in-person working days. Not having defined this would have supposed a vagueness between the limits of distance and in-person working, with huge legal uncertainty, as was the case with the legislation from the [main opposition Popular Party]. The 30% was agreed between companies and workers’ representatives.”
But the legislation has not convinced everyone. The minimum time requirements and the additional costs are the stumbling blocks. “Companies are asking us how they can avoid these rules in order to free themselves of these obligations,” explains attorney Ana Gómez, from the law firm Ceca Magán. “Defining home working with a percentage is the least-flexible approach in the world,” adds José Luis Risco, the partner in charge of human resources at consultancy EY. He argues that the law does not reflect the current reality. “It was conceived for a time like the lockdown, not for now,” he argues.
He is not the only one to think like this. “There has not been an effort to be imaginative with this law,” argues Eva Rimbau, an adjunct professor of economic and business studies at the UOC university. “It makes no sense that home working in the near future be like what we have been doing during the pandemic,” she continues.
Home working can mean certain savings, but for smaller companies, it’s much more difficult to cover the costs
Gerardo Cuerva, president of Cepyme
In their efforts to avoid applying the legislation, some companies – in particular smaller firms – are sticking to the agreements that were reached with their workforce within the framework of the pandemic in order to avoid taking the plunge.
“Home working can mean certain savings, but for smaller companies, it’s much more difficult to cover the costs of the two ways of working for just one employee,” argues Gerardo Cuerva, the president of Cepyme, Spain’s confederation of small- and medium-sized companies.
One of the articles of the law specifies that one of the minimum requirements necessary for the agreement between the company and the employee is the definition of the place of work chosen by the latter, and which is subject to a risk assessment. As such, the use of the home throws up another complication. “The [Spanish] Constitution covers the inviolability of the home [in Article 18], meaning that we cannot turn up and enter anyone’s home and enter even if they allowed us to, like we could at a company,” explains Eva Olivares, the president of the SESLAESS union, which covers state work inspectors. “There are cases of people who are on the ERTE [government furlough scheme], but are working [another job] from home. And it’s difficult to prove that,” adds Ana Ercoreca, an inspector and the president of the SITSS labor union for work inspectors.
The obligatory jump to home working due to the coronavirus was not just a challenge for the private sector. Spain’s public administration also got on board, but these days there are practically zero public employees still at home. “It was all done in a very anarchic way, with no protocols, and without remedying security issues as was seen with the cyber attack on SEPE,” explains Josetxo Gándara, a union representative for the state administration. He is referring to the state public employment service, which was not only completely overloaded with extra work during the pandemic, but was also the target in March of this year of a ransomware attack, which paralyzed 710 in-person offices and 52 virtual ones.
The regulation of public employees is not included in the home working law, and instead is subject to criteria set out by the State Administration Ministry. In October, civil servants were called to return to their physical places of work and distance working was limited to 20% of their working day. “The return of government employees was hurried because home working was creating discontent among part of the public, who were complaining that when they needed to get something done there was no one available to help them.”
As such, after more than 18 months of home working in both the public and private sectors in Spain, it has now become something of a passing fad. This is reflected in Google searches about the term, which peaked between March 15 and 21, 2020, when the first state of alarm was put in place by the Spanish government, and then again from September 20 to 26 of the same year when the law was approved. Since then the curve has fallen, as has teleworking itself. It’s an efficient form of working but it’s failed to win over employers – at least, not under the current conditions.