Earlier this month, the Portuguese Parliament approved a law creating new protections for remote workers. Companies can now face fines if they contact employees outside of normal working hours, and they cannot monitor their employees while they work from home. In addition, companies must contribute to expenses incurred by the switch to remote work, including internet and electricity. The ruling Partido Socialista (Socialist Party) has called this a necessary response to the increase in home-working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I can’t say I disagree.
Portugal is one of the first countries in the world to pass such a law, and I can only hope that others will follow its lead.
In the past year and a half, we have seen millions of people forced to work remotely as a result of the pandemic. This shattered the fragile balance that most people had managed to cultivate, as home workers ended up working longer hours than before. From The Guardian to Bloomberg to the Economist, you don’t have to look far to find an article on the subject. But at the same time, more than half of UK employees claim to feel closer to their families and to have a better work-life balance than they did before. And this is not the only impact that remote working has had. According to Forbes Magazine, both companies and employees benefited from working from home, as has the environment. One study showed that companies save an average of $22,000 per remote employee as they don’t need as much office space, and employees save time, stress and money by not having to commute.
Given the clear benefits of working remotely, it is unsurprising that 80% of European employers say that they plan on continuing remote work even when restrictions are lifted. However, protections are essential to ensuring workers’ mental health and therefore their productivity. As we have seen, working from home can force people to work longer hours and can lead to feelings of isolation, something which most of us are probably familiar with. But if governments establish adequate protection for online workers, as stated by Portugal’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, Ana Mendes Godinho, “telework can be a ‘game changer’”.
I firmly believe that remote work is the future, but it isn’t fair to expect those working from home to dedicate more hours to their job than they ordinarily would. Portugal’s protections mean that workers will be given more freedom when working from home – freedom that increases productivity and reduces stress – and will be able to construct a better work-life balance.
Who wants to work for a company that monitors their every action and micromanages everything they do? Who wants to be employed somewhere that overworks them and pushes them to their limits? Unfortunately, in this era of remote work, too many people are forced to accept unfair treatment by their employers. And while most governments have well-established labour laws, these often don’t apply to online work. Answering an email or taking a call after hours is not a big deal, but these add up. High expectations, micromanagement and constant emails eventually add over an hour to the workday – an hour that could be spent on taking care of yourself or being with your family.
It’s easy to burn out when you can’t escape your work, and I’d say that that is a big risk that comes with telework. But online work is the future – no matter what Boris Johnson has said, remote working is here to stay. And Portugal has shown itself to value the mental health and the time of its workers; corporations do not come above its people, which is something that a lot of countries could stand to learn.
So now it’s up to the rest of the world: do you value your workers? Or do you want them to struggle at every step of the way?
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