12 October 2020

How Covid-19 is changing the European workplace

Littler Mendelson's Stephan Swinkels

Pandemic has challenged attitudes towards remote work, writes Stephan Swinkels

Covid-19’s sudden, deadly outbreak early this year forced many companies to adapt to a nearly universal remote workforce in a matter of days. Now, employers across Europe seem to be embracing new thinking about the efficacy of remote work – and learning just how industrious and productive employees can be from remote locations. 

That was one of the key findings of a survey we conducted of more than 750 human resource executives and in-house counsel across Europe. As the pandemic wears on, many European employers are making long-term changes to their remote work policies to provide more flexibility or even to require employees to work remotely.

These and other changing attitudes are detailed in Littler’s European Employer Covid-19 Survey Report, which provides important takeaways for employers as they reexamine the policies, procedures, regulations and norms that have governed office work for so many years.

Shifting perspectives on remote work

Nearly 70% of European employers responding to the survey plan to continue remote work for employees unless their jobs really require them to be in the workplace. Additionally, 80% of respondents are – either somewhat or to a great extent – requiring or considering requiring more employees to work remotely. 

Those employers say they are considering this shift to achieve greater productivity (41%), address the difficulty and cost of implementing new safety measures (38%) and allow for the closure of offices (25%). The function of offices may change from working spot to meeting place. This shift is remarkable on its own and will likely become more pervasive as reluctant employers follow suit to compete for talent in a post-pandemic environment. These changes will obviously also have legal consequences for employers. 

Interestingly, employers in the US appear less ready to adapt to the changes foisted on them by Covid-19. While the survey finds that 41% of European employers plan to change policies to allow employees to continue working remotely in the long-term, only 30% of US employers said the same in Littler’s Covid-19 Return to Work Survey Report, conducted in May. Rather, 52% of US employers surveyed said they would remain flexible regarding remote work only until the pandemic subsides, compared to the 34% of European respondents who indicate similarly.

Concerns about employee wellbeing

Covid-19 has inflicted a wave of new mental-health challenges – but, encouragingly, the vast majority of European employers (90%) say they have taken at least some action this year to address their employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Some 57% are offering more flexible work schedules to accommodate employees’ personal needs and 51% are soliciting frequent feedback on their organisations’ responses to the pandemic.

While the survey results show a fairly high level of effort from employers to offer flexibility and listen to employees’ concerns, more can be done. For instance, a smaller percentage of respondents say they are offering mental health services and employee assistance plans to help employees experiencing feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression (31%) or providing training to managers to help them respond to employees in need (24%).

Government support and workforce reductions

The survey results also suggest that European employers will face difficult decisions about workforce reductions in the coming months. Several European countries implemented programmes during the early part of the pandemic that allowed companies to keep employees on their payrolls by providing much of their base pay from a government fund.

While these programmes helped prevent widespread job losses in the initial stage of the crisis, critics have warned about inevitable job cuts down the road. Of the survey respondents whose organisations accepted government support, 59% say they expect to implement reductions in staff when the programme ends and only 17% expect they can maintain their current workforce without government aid.

The survey also indicates the reductions would come quickly: 63% say they will begin reductions as soon as the law allows, before the government programmes end or within two weeks of their expiration.

Managing time-off requests

Another vexing challenge for employers during the pandemic has been managing vacation time. Roughly a third of respondents have begun to see an uptick in time-off requests and the vast majority of that group (82%) say the requests are causing them operational headaches.

The EU’s Working Time Directive mandates a minimum of four weeks paid leave for all full-time employees – time that can only be carried over into the following year under certain conditions. With requests likely to increase in the year’s final months, employers will need to plan carefully to remain legally compliant and avoid business disruptions.

Employers in the UK have more freedom as companies can order employees to take leave, while in countries such as Germany the law is more protective of employee time off. That divergence is a good example of the varying and evolving regulations that European employers face in these challenging and extraordinary times.

Stephan Swinkels is a shareholder with Littler Mendelson and helps lead the development and integration of the firm’s global practice.

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