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Was telework deflating before the omicron explosion?

23 December 2021

Published in

The Conversation

Alberto Andreu

Professor at School of Economics

Javier Arellano

Professor at School of Economics

Laura Bello

teaching assistant of research of the School of Economics

Omicron has reawakened telework. It seemed that, with the arrival of the vaccines and the new normality, the explosion of teleworking that we had been experiencing since the state of alarm (and general confinement) was decreed on 14 March 2020 was beginning to dissolve like a sugar cube. For some, this hypothesis was confirmed by data from the INE: in the third semester of 2021, the share of regular teleworkers fell to 8% of the employed population (approximately 1 573 600 people).

This seemed to put the brakes on the spectacular growth of a new form of work that had not yet taken off in Spain. According to data of the INE, the penetration rate rose from 4.8% in 2019 (951,800 people) to 16.2% in the second quarter of 2020 (3,015,200 people). In other words: from one year to the next, Spain increased threefold the number of people working from home on a regular basis, issue . The change was such that within a few months Royal Decree-Law 28/2020 of 22 September on remote work had to be passed.

However, the arrival of the tsunami of the omicron variant has brought teleworking back into the limelight: many companies are recommending their employees to work from home and the presence in the centres of work is voluntary. In view of this... So where does this leave us? Is it going up?leave? Is it stabilising? For those of us who have signed this article, all these ups and downs simply reflect what is popularly known as the pendulum effect and only highlight one reality: telework is here to stay, with its ups and downs. And it will stay, either as plan B or life insurance, or as plan A, i.e. as the tool of flexibility that it always was.

The pendulum effect is clear. Before the pandemic there was hardly any teleworking in Spain; at 15.4%, it was below the average of EU countries. During the confinement this percentage doubled to 30.2% (also below the European average of 36.8%). And by the end of 2021, with no restrictions in place, telework would start to fall somewhere between too little and too much. There are two reasons for this intermediate status between the two extremes of the pendulum swing:

  1. During confinement, telework has not been teleworking, but rather surviving (and with Omicron, too). The workers, away from their place of work work, have suffered work situations unheard of in normal times.

  2. The 9.4% share provided by the INE for the second quarter of 2021 puts telework in its true dimension: that of complementing and not replacing work face-to-face. It thus becomes another way of working whose goal is to promote flexibility (especially in certain subject jobs and sectors of activity).

But the irruption of Omicron would be swinging the pendulum back to the high side, at least in these weeks of explosion, which will foreseeably be reflected when we see data for the first quarter of 2022.

According to data of the Bank of Spain, the jobs most likely to be teleworked are those occupied by technicians, professionals, scientists and intellectuals (58.9 %); directors and managers (56.2 %); technicians and support professionals (53.2 %); and clerks, accountants and office clerks (45.3 %). It should also be recalled that, according to McKinsey, the sectors most able to telework without loss of productivity are: finance and insurance (76%); management (66%); scientific professionals and professional services (62%); information technology and telecommunications (58%); and international trade (41%). The end of the restrictions would have placed the economic and professional sectors most suited to teleworking in the mid-ranges of usage. And it would have brought those less inclined to work remotely (either because of its intrinsic difficulty or because of the decline in productivity) back to face-to-face work. Among the latter, and according to data of the Bank of Spain, are: manufacturing industry, construction and craftsmen (1.6%); elementary occupations (7.3%); agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishing sectors (8.3%), and plant and machinery operators (17.5%). These data would be in line with those offered by Randstand for Spain: just over 22% of all employed persons can carry out a distance work that can be extended over time due to the nature of the job.

We believe that, pandemic status permitting, telework will tend to fall somewhere between too little and too much in the hypothetical pendulum effect we have already described. This middle ground is reached when companies can extract the full potential of telework and give it its true nature: that of being a flexible model of work , with obvious strengths and opportunities. According to the results of the joint research between association Directivos de Capital Humano (DCH) and the University of Navarra, which gave rise to the DCH White Paper on work a Distancia en España, teleworking has a wealth of strengths and opportunities that will allow it to be here to stay.

Among its strengths we have identified the following:

  • financial aid integration between the various facets of life (professional and staff) due to savings and better distribution of time.

  • When it is voluntary and a work benefit, it improves motivation staff and the organisational climate.

  • It helps concentration and financial aid to keep the focus on what is important by eliminating stimuli in open work spaces.

  • It promotes greater autonomy and better organisation of individual time.

  • It promotes sustainability and reduces environmental pollution by reducing the number of trips issue .

In addition, telework represents clear opportunities for companies:

  • It contributes to the integration of people with physical disabilities.

  • It encourages the gradual return to work after maternity/paternity or parental leave.

  • It breaks down the boundaries of talent and makes it possible to attract resources (national or international) that would not be accessible under 100% face-to-face conditions.

  • It integrates globalised and dispersed teams.

  • financial aid to promote new forms of organisation that improve individual and collaborative work .

  • Accelerate digitisation.

  • Save costs by reducing space, travel and physical events.

  • It fosters skills such as autonomy and confidence, which are not only useful in professional life but also at staff.

For many of these strengths and opportunities to be realised, professionals, and especially teams, need to find out what is the most appropriate dose of teleworking in each case and for each of their members. It is not so much a question of whether teleworking can or should be encouraged as of what is the right measure of work remotely for individuals and teams to extract all the advantages offered by the flexible work . Thus, large Spanish companies are beginning to include in their collective agreements the possibility of teleworking two or three days a week. The General State Administration has also signed a agreement with the trade unions so that, from January 2022, civil servants will be able to telework up to 3 days at home. A little more than a year ago all this was unthinkable. Therefore, although the percentage of the working population that teleworks on a regular basis is lower than during confinement, teleworking is now starting to gain momentum in Spain.

Confinement broke down a barrier by forcing workers and companies to experiment with new forms of work. The period of experimentation has been followed by a period of reflection, in which it will be necessary to define when telework can be an obstacle and when it provides flexibility and improves performance. Finally, a very illustrative fact: according to the INE, the percentage of the employed population who telework occasionally has risen from 4.2% in the third quarter of 2020 (at plenary session of the Executive Council effect of confinement) to 4.7% in the same quarter but in 2021. This shows that more and more people are test teleworking and that, when test, it is difficult to turn back. And, additionally, Omicron highlights another reality: teleworking is a great life insurance and plan B to which we can always fall back when circumstances require it.