Telework facilitates flexibility and a strong work–family balance while reducing the environmental impacts of mobility. Although it has benefits, the implementation of teleworking practices across Europe, and in particular, in the case of home-based telework, is moving more slowly than expected [1
]. The economic crisis is considered a reason that justifies this delay, although teleworking was originally attributed to the oil crisis of the 1970s [5
In this context, telework has suddenly experienced a rebound, as a result of the measures to protect citizens from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). In the beginning of 2020, several governments recommended that companies facilitate teleworking to avoid employees gathering together in the same place. To quote an example, the Spanish Health Minister, Mr. Illa, asked companies to promote telework as a measure to face the coronavirus in Spain on March 2020, and several protocols were published to help companies in their implementation of telework.
Additionally, during this time, the number of searches of the term “teleworking” on Google in Spain has increased exponentially (Figure 1
This article analyzes this situation and aims to promote the future use of teleworking, after the coronavirus crisis abates.
This paper contributes to previous literature by (a) providing new factors that affect the implementation of teleworking; (b) extending Baruch and Nicholson’s framework, adding environmental factors; (c) developing a database of companies that have introduced telework as a measure to face coronavirus in a crisis context; and (d) testing the extended model on the database.
Baruch and Nicholson’s framework is based on a semi-structured survey of sixty-two teleworkers in five UK organizations. Both public and private organizations were included in the study: an accountancy firm (one of the Big Six), two large insurance companies (SunLife and Standard Life), British Telecom, and one local government agency. The empirical analysis focused on teleworkers who work from their home, i.e., home-based teleworkers. Respondents were asked to identify factors which they perceived provide support for effective teleworking.
To address these purposes, the article is structured as follows. Section 2
presents the theoretical framework. Section 3
and Section 4
present the empirical work and its results. The article finishes with the discussion of the main results and conclusions.
summarizes the main results from the empirical analysis. As can be observed, several companies implemented the use of teleworking as a response to the coronavirus crisis between the 1st and the 16th of March 2020 (Table 2
Regarding the profile of these companies, most of them are large or multinational companies. It can be assumed that small companies have also conducted these practices, but they are not frequently published in mass media. However, this situation agrees with the previous literature that stated that large companies have more facilities in the introduction of teleworking [21
Previous literature has shown that large companies implement teleworking to a higher degree than small and medium companies. In addition to companies whose activities are based on presentiality (e.g., direct sales, catering, transport services, etc.), numerous firms have not introduced teleworking due to an organizational dynamic that prioritizes presence in the workplace. Other firms, most of which are small and medium companies, have not done so due to a lack of technological innovation. By way of example, 61% of European small companies had incorporated a website by 2004, whereas roughly 90% of large companies had [40
]. Nevertheless, a large number of small companies have implemented teleworking practices during the current crisis. However, these small companies are also affected by a lack of contingency plans because they have adopted teleworking forced by the circumstances.
As teleworking has been implemented because of security reasons, all companies introduced teleworking in a massive way, to all employees or more than 1000 employees. In addition, teleworking has been implemented for employees located in a specific region that is severely suffering from the coronavirus crisis (e.g., the case of Madrid).
The publication of news regarding telework in financial and economic mass media evidences the interest of employers toward teleworking practices in a risk context.
Considering the Spanish context related to working practices, teleworking has grown very slowly in Spain in recent decades, and it was mainly implemented by telephone operator companies. However, these companies have delocalized many jobs, and consequently, there is a lot of confusion about whether these companies have really implemented teleworking practices.
According to the National Statistics Institute, 27% of Spanish companies have introduced teleworking in 2017, whereas 7.4% of employees (around 1,430,000) were teleworking in Spain in 2018 [42
]. More than half of these teleworkers could be classified as occasional teleworkers, as just 4% of the Spanish employees worked regularly from home before the coronavirus crisis [43
]. These figures reflect a slower development of telework in Spain compared to the expectations estimated in the 1990s to occur in the 21st century. Moreover, the implementation of teleworking practices in Spain is among the lowest in Europe. The percentage of Spanish companies that opt for teleworking is clearly smaller than the European average of 35% of companies, according to Eurostat data [39
Nonetheless, several companies from the selected sample (Table 2
) implemented telecommuting practices before the Covid-19 risk context. Obviously, these companies were in a better situation to manage a massive implementation of telework during the coronavirus crisis. Nevertheless, they had to address important challenges to prepare nearly all their employees to work remotely.
Extant experience related to the management of the Covid-19 situation in firms across European and Asian countries indicate that companies from the service sector, and, in particular, telematics leisure businesses, energy companies, insurance businesses, banking services, and technological companies are the industries that present higher rates of telework implementation. This practice is introduced as a measure to ensure the continuity of the business activity. In this vein, a selective implementation of teleworking can be identified. There has not been a uniform implementation of teleworking practices across occupations and business processes around the world. Accordingly, several scholars underline the high use of teleworking in e-commerce or consulting firms [44
], online services businesses [45
] and companies based on innovative activities or facilitators of technological services to other organizations [46
]. In parallel with the extension of the social use of ICTs, the public sector has also incorporated teleworking practices in relation to specific public services [47
The Spanish situation is similar to the previous one described. Concerning the jobs and sectors that implement telework, results from Table 2
show that most companies come from the knowledge sector (e.g., banking companies, institutions, technological companies, etc.) or are related to health services (e.g., insurance companies). Most jobs conducted remotely refer to “white-collar” workers (e.g., Microsoft, Twitter, etc.). These results also coincide with previous literature [20
In fact, most of these companies had previously adopted teleworking practices but limited teleworking to only a portion of their employees and only used telework, for instance, once per week. The current crisis caused by the pandemic expanded these projects to all the employees (in the case that all personnel are able to work under this modality). As a result, companies have to provide their employees with technological material to work from home (not just hardware, but mainly specific software, such as remote applications). To give an example of this situation, universities have offered telematics tools to professors to facilitate the possibility of teaching from home, in addition to the previously available ordinary software used to connect teachers and students (e.g., VPN (virtual private network) connections were multiplied by a factor of five at the Autonomous University of Madrid to guarantee communications). These technological tools have become essential for teaching activity, although they were just supporting materials several weeks ago. For example, the [email protected]
platform has just been launched to support online teaching. This platform supports Spanish universities in the switch from face-to-face to online teaching and it has been developed by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the National Distance Education University (UNED). Furthermore, as recommended by the European Framework Agreement on telework, organizations should provide their employees with the technological and physical resources needed to conduct the activity remotely. This measure is also contained in several collective agreements created during the expansion of telework, during the first years of the 21st century [50
The adoption of telework by these companies was surely a result of a force majeure event, given the exceptional circumstances that have surrounded the coronavirus crisis. The confinement of the population is the circumstance that has had a major impact together with the limitation in the mobility of citizens. Nevertheless, this type of measure is based, theoretically, on two principles that can positively affect the future of telework: the responsibility and trust in citizens, and the economic level of the employees. In this regard, it can be assumed that both public institutions and companies that implemented teleworking rely on citizens/employees’ co-responsibility to ensure the continuity of business production and reduce the impact of economic inactivity. Even more, the European Framework Agreement on Telework includes measures related to the relevance of ensuring a climate of confidence between employers and employees as a recommendation in the implementation of teleworking practices.
The management of the crisis has relied on these principles that are necessary for the development of telework. A lack of one of these principles leads to a barrier to teleworking. Furthermore, it should be highlighted that by adopting telecommuting, companies are preserving employees’ health, and they are minimizing the labor risks of employees. In the current crisis resulting from Covid-19, physical contact and presentiality have been considered as high risk activities for the health status of the employees, and, therefore, telework has solved the problem of continuity of the business activity under a mix of heterogeneous national norms that regulate professional activity in terms of health and labor security. Following the recommendations of the European Framework Agreement on telework, companies have introduced teleworkers into their prevention plans, taking advantage of the fact that, under the perspective of prevention of labor risks, the employees’ home is considered to be the work center.
In this context, Spanish entrepreneurial organizations and the majority of labor unions have jointly elaborated a document signed in March 2020, where they stated that it is essential to facilitate telework because of extraordinary reasons of public health in the sectors and companies where it was not previously implemented or planned. For that purpose, it will be considered as accomplished, the requirement of companies of evaluate risks with the auto-evaluation made by the own employee [51
The use of telework as a response to the crisis and for business continuity depends on the activity of the organization, and it is heterogeneous among activities. For example, Twitter sent a circular to all its employees around the work (around 5000 workers) describing how to conduct their activities. Conversely, banking entities have been the least prepared companies for teleworking because of the sensitivity of the information managed by the employees and the level of confidentiality demanded. In this sense, the culture of these organizations is based on presentiality, not because of the direct service offered to customers—which is reduced daily following a strategy of cost reduction—but due to the measures of security needed to work remotely. Other companies have adopted mixed models, based on the so-called easy-working that allows professionals to work remotely several days per week. However, this easy-working modality has been questioned for health reasons as it does not solve the potential transmission of the coronavirus disease because it implies mobility to the workplace and intermittent presentiality.
Several companies have been adapting their measures as the spread of Covid-19 increases and following the health authorities’ recommendations from each country. As a result, they have increased the number of teleworkers as the illness advanced, from considering employees with minor children that should stay at home as the schools were closed to introducing a generalized measure to all employees that are able to work remotely with the support of technology.
As side-effects, first estimations of the environmental impact of the crisis are being published. A reduction in the world GDP has been produced to a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions, as highlighted by the Global Carbon Project. The reductions in coal and crude oil use indicate a reduction in CO2
emissions of 25% or more, compared with the same two-week period following the Chinese New Year holiday in 2019. This amounts to approximately 100 MtCO2
—or 6% of global emissions over the same period [52
]. However, it will be necessary to await the final analysis of this situation regarding the impact on emissions once production returns to normal. Experts are aware of a rebound effect, and they expect that the recuperation of economic activity and mobility, including freight transport and mobility with a high impact on contamination, will result in similar levels of emissions to the pre-crisis situation or even higher to the pre-coronavirus context.
Concerning the analysis of collective agreements, mismatches between the clauses included in collective agreements and the situation derived from the massive implementation of teleworking can be highlighted. Table 3
summarizes the main problems in the implementation of teleworking related to these mismatches.
Most collective agreements include specific clauses about teleworking. These clauses consider teleworking to be a voluntary and revocable practice for the worker and the employer concerned.
However, the situation derived from the massive implementation of teleworking as a response to the Covid-19 crisis prevents employees from exercising their rights and complicates makes it difficult for the company to end teleworking. In this context, the company forces employees to adopt teleworking as a way to continue their work relationship.
It is therefore important to analyze whether employees’ rights have been respected during the state of alarm. Collective agreements refer to the following rights of teleworkers: rest periods, work pressure and other working conditions.
The decision to implement teleworking at home on a massive scale implies the impossibility of facilitating and installing equipment for workers to work remotely. In this vein, the European Framework Agreement on Telework recommends that companies facilitate equipment for teleworking.
An additional problem related to this massive implementation is that teleworking protocols have not been applied. Data confidentiality and information control are some of the issues included in these protocols.
Regarding health and safety, companies are not set up to check the regulations remotely. Companies are not allowed to send technicians to check health conditions in the teleworkers’ homes during the Covid-19 crisis.
On the other hand, when this exceptional situation ends, employees will keep their economic rights. Monitoring this return to the previous pre-crisis situation will be interesting in terms of observing if these rights are maintained or if, given the exceptionality and if the pandemic results in a chronic situation or reappears in the short-term, these rights are reduced. In the latter scenario, teleworking could become an ad hoc strategy to develop part of the activity of the companies.
From the analysis of collective agreements and the response given by companies, it can be deduced that no company had contingency plans specifically designed to solve emergency situations such as the present coronavirus pandemic. There are examples of companies that had planned and approved teleworking protocols, most of them linked to home-family factors and reorganizational needs (jobs restructuring or technological innovation). Most companies that had previously implemented teleworking included this practice in their collective agreements. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 crisis made these companies implement teleworking on a massive scale. This massive implementation implies a challenge for the company; the goal of reorganizing business activity around teleworking.
To sum up, the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the lack of contingency plans in companies to respond to external factors (e.g., a pandemic) that imply a reorganization of work. In parallel, this crisis has made teleworking and its potential more visible. In this regard, teleworking can be considered a response to the Covid-19 crisis because it satisfies the contingency needs of companies. In the current state of alarm and its reduced presentiality (several countries have limited both mobility and face-to-face work), forms of telework other than home-based telework (such as high mobile telework) have not been implemented. Despite of this restriction, home-based teleworking has been considered as an urgent solution with relatively low costs of implementation. Although final data about the scope of teleworking in the current coronavirus pandemic are not available, we estimate that, at least, the 441 firms that had included teleworking in their company collective agreements between 2009 and 2010 have implemented teleworking in the Covid-19 crisis, at least for part of their production activity.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
Regarding the H1N1 pandemic crisis, it can be concluded that many businesses in the United States lack adequate pandemic plans [53
]. According to these authors, the continuity of operations, in the context of a biological event, depends on the business size (where larger businesses are more prepared to face these events), the type of business (it has been proven that health care organizations are more prepared), having human resource professionals within the company disaster planning committee, and the risk perception of a pandemic in the short term.
It can be considered that European companies, and, in particular, Spanish companies, also lack contingency plans to face threats derived from biological risk situations [53
]. Most companies and organizations—with the exception of the health care sector—have never planned their response to an emergency resulting from a pandemic because of its rare probability of occurrence. Nonetheless, during the last 15 years, there have been international situations of alarm with health emergencies arising from biological infectious pathogens, such as the crises involving SARS (2003), H1N1, and the Ebola virus (2014–2016). These crises should have been a milestone to make companies and organizations prevent future scenarios and develop their contingency plans, where teleworking is included as a measure to continue the business activity, and, furthermore, to ensure employees’ health. This is particularly relevant for small and medium companies that represent the main number of productivity units [54
Innovative organization of work through teleworking, if the job allows for working remotely, has been adopted by organizations in response to the Covid-19 threat.
An increasing number of firms have been adopting teleworking including specific clauses in their companies’ collective agreements and plans. Nonetheless, these clauses considered telework a solution to home and family needs or organizational needs. There is no collective agreement that anticipates a situation of mass teleworking or the implementation of teleworking in a context of security or health crisis. This situation has been observed in all companies regardless of their size.
To guarantee business viability during a health crisis, small and medium firms should have integrated continuity plans implemented in advance. However, findings from Rebmann et al. [53
], based on experiences of companies located in Toronto and their responses to the outbreak of SARS in 2003, indicate that there are still workplace cultures that encourage sick staff to continue working, resulting in higher rates of occupationally related disease transmission. In addition, the current crisis of the coronavirus has not just tested the lack of contingency plans to face biological threats but also the inexistence of minimum measures to solve a health problem created by an infectious disease in workplaces, such as the existence of materials like masks, hydro-alcoholic disinfectant gels, the purchase and stock of antiviral medicines for employees, or the prevision of organizing the workplace to ensure the distances of security (the research underscores that just 13% of US companies reported having an anti-infective therapy stockpile for use during a disaster).
With regard to those plans, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine established a series of recommendations on prevention and how to act in the case of a health emergency. The mentioned recommendations are included in the document “Pandemic Influenza Guidance for Corporations. ACOEM Emergency Preparedness Task Force
,” where the modality of teleworking is also introduced [55
Other authors have contributed to the debate of teleworking in pandemic situations, warning of the breaches of security associated with remote jobs that can be an obstacle to its implementation or about working outside regular work hours, resulting in an increase of the total work hours that are not considered in the working contract [56
]. Our research shows the limitations of a non-planned implementation of teleworking. Although employees’ rights and work duties should not be affected, there are several elements that justify the need for contingency plans that include teleworking. As presented in the Results Section, the facilitation and installation of work equipment or health standards result in difficulties for the employees that work remotely.
The extension of the modality of home-based telework in the very worst pandemic scenarios, such as the Covid-19 crisis, can be considered as an exceptional situation to limit the effects of the reduced production activity, as a consequence of the measures proposed by the health authorities in every country. To quote an example of this exceptionality, multinational companies have called for teleworking for their employees located in countries that are at risk, where there has been a confinement of their population, whereas in other countries where there is a strategy that differs from confinement, they have been operating under the principle of a traditional presence at the workplace. A similar behavior has been observed in the public sector.
The call for telework underscores that for a high volume of concrete jobs, the work can be developed remotely at the employee’s home, just by including small adaptations. This circumstance is evident for most activities related to certain areas of production in the companies (e.g., customer support, human resources management, or marketing tasks). At the same time, this situation has allowed companies to increase their knowledge about which of their production processes and activities can be supplied at a distance, by teleworking. The last question that comes up with the adoption of telework is the role of intermediate managers; most likely, telework will evidence the existence of processes that can be redesigned to facilitate a more direct relation between the top of the organizational pyramid and the operators. This analysis about processes and jobs could lead to an unexpected effect of the Covid-19 crisis. The situation may lead to a major planning of teleworking not just as an occasional measure derived from environmental or health catastrophes, but also as a strategy of infrastructure cost reduction, to reduce contamination related to mobility or to generate a favorable climate for combining work and family life.
An evaluation of the companies that have implemented telework as a response to the Covid-19 situation is required. Once the pandemic risks have reduced and the exceptionality disappears, companies may offer their employees the possibility to continue teleworking, or, conversely, their presence may be required at the workplace.
Further research should focus on the situation of teleworking in companies after the coronavirus crisis to learn if the crisis has acted as a driver for future teleworking or if it was just a temporary measure that has no long-term effects.