Menu

Telework before and after COVID-19: The Ibero-American experience

Introduction

Today’s society is undergoing breathtaking changes. For many years there has been talk about the transformation of the world of work. Its configuration is historically situated, and manifests a moment of power relations between workers, trade unions, the business sector and the state as regulator. Work also structures societies, forging membership in collective and individual identities. In recent years, work was studied in connection with two events that have affected its traditional structure: on the one hand, the crisis and reconversion of industrial society, and on the other hand, the technological changes produced by the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. At the level of work organization, this includes cooperative coordination or virtual production environments (VPE), made possible by internet connectivity without any human presence.

In this scenario, contemporary teleworking was born. There is a substantial difference between this concept and industrial homework. The latter – typical of the industrial revolution – was created to carry out manufacturing or similar tasks in the worker’s home, whether for an employer, intermediary or workshop. Telework, on the other hand, is a modality of the digital era that arises with technological advances whereby tasks are performed at the worker’s home or in places other than the employer’s establishment. One of the characteristics of teleworking is that it uses the connectivity of the internet to provide a service for the worker or his employer, but which can be both at the worker’s home (home office) or business (e.g. Amazon or Just Eat). There is an environment of connectivity in which workers are linked to a network from other places (telecentre) or the street (e.g. Uber, Cabify or Glovo).

Regulatory changes pre- and post-COVID-19

The legislation on teleworking in the 23 countries of Ibero-America reveals differing levels of progress, with Portugal, Spain, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay all going some way to incorporate telework into labour regulations, sometimes under the banner of ‘remote work’ or ‘home work’. Most of the laws enacted and under discussion aim to conceptualize and regulate these labour relationships within the category of paid employment, and they seek to give it a protection comparable to any other registered employee. The aim is to provide the worker with the same protection against dismissal and identical social security coverage. The lockdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that all non-essential activities are suspended in many countries. However, most companies and administrations started to carry out their tasks through the home office modality, i.e. teleworking. This revealed ‘legal loopholes’ and accelerated the process of discussion about their regulation. In 2020, six countries in the region enacted laws on teleworking as an employed activity. At the same time, Ecuador and Puerto Rico are in the process of regulating its application.

Teleworking in the civil service

The crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic confronted Ibero-American public administrations with new challenges. At the same time as regulating the expansion of telework, they had to implement and manage the teleworking of their own civil servants and the digitalization of their procedures. Far from remaining ‘in suspended animation’ they have implemented emergency measures and developed their daily activities with a new agility.

Comparative experience tells us that these innovations are very fertile in agencies that provide services based on information management, such as identification of persons, social security, property registration, enabling processes and tax collection. The agencies that provide standardized and large-scale services find in their design a predisposition for the simplification of tasks with new technologies. This not only makes work easier for employees, but also shortens the procedures for citizens.

Those parts of Ibero-American civil services linked to the performance of activities with high qualifications and autonomy in their professional field can be developed in the worker’s domestic environment or even in collaborative co-working spaces. Professionals in fields such as law, graphic design and publishing perform tasks that require a climate conducive to creativity or careful analysis, which open-plan offices limit or restrict when shared with other employees with a different habitus.

It is important to rethink organizational culture, and to move away from the fetishism of presenteeism. The working day must be gauged in terms of productivity and the achievement of the goals set for each type of worker. But new challenges arise regarding the working conditions of employees who do telework. Issues such as the coordination and control of civil servants in situations that take place in the domestic environment of employees raises questions such as privacy and the limits of labour rights.

There are also important questions about how to ensure appropriate working conditions and care for the health of teleworkers. Take, for example, issues like overwork, the extension of the working day, the right to disconnect, mental health and the privacy of workers. These are very complex issues to regulate and control. How can the state ensure a safe working environment at home? What requirements will be demanded from the officials? Is it legal for an inspector of the labour authority to enter the employee’s home? What will be considered occupational diseases and work accidents in a domestic environment? These are some of the new questions that emerge in the brave new age of teleworking.

 

Nelson Cardozo is Professor and researcher at the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE) and the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA).

Pablo Bulcourf is Professor and researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (UNQ) and the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA).

Image credit: PickPik