The pandemic brought with it generalised teleworking, which has lasted for well over a year now.
Limited teleworking had been in place for well over a decade in the Commission, thanks to no small extent to pressure from unions, as a measure for better work-life balance. When Covid-19 hit, the once reluctant Commission, like so many other organisations and businesses, was forced to introduce generalised teleworking, for what was initially expected to be a few months.
The immediate evidence that emerged was that, in teleworking mode, the institutions were capable of delivering results on every front, not least in priority areas related to the fight against the pandemic and the recovery from the economic crisis that resulted from it. As far as results goes, teleworking worked!
The picture was not, alas, 100% rosy.
Long-term teleworking presented issues such ergonomics, equipment and connection costs for teleworkers. Up until after the summer of 2020, the prospect was that staff would be physically back to the office in October of that year. However, the first signs that we were about to be hit by a second wave were clear in September and by October the prospects of a quick return had disappeared. In October 2020 Union Syndicale publicly asked that suitable equipment be provided to improve ergonomics at home where needed. Union Syndicale also demanded the allocation of a lump sum, inversely proportional to grade, to offset the additional costs generated by teleworking, notably connection costs.
In December 2020, DG HR finally took the decision to provide support to colleagues willing to acquire a chair and a PC screen. Nothing was done for those that had already equipped themselves (unless they had kept receipts) and there was no measure to offset the extra costs generated by teleworking for lower grades. This is still the case to this day. Union Syndicale keeps reminding the administration that colleagues, particularly those in the lower grades, still suffer from this.
Another issue that emerged in 2020 was the carryover, by 31 December 2020, of holiday beyond the 12 days automatically carried over (as provided for in Article 4 of Annex V to the Staff Regulations). Union Syndicale was the leading voice among unions asking for flexibility, because normal holiday planning had been in impossible in 2020, asking in particular for an extension of the cut-off date to 31 March 2021. Unlike other institutions, which applied different degrees of flexibility, the Commission took an unnecessarily restrictive approach that generated negative feedback from staff — and from managers, who had to implement it. It forced many colleagues to take unwanted leave or face the risk of losing the extra leave days that they had been unable to take due to the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, there was a growing number of requests from colleagues to telework from a place other than the place of employment, in most cases from the home country and for family reasons. Once more, EU institutions took different approaches on this matter, with the Commission being, again, the most restrictive of all. The Commission teleworking guidelines contained a couple of family-related exceptional cases allowing teleworking from abroad, rendered in many instances practically ineffective by the provision that they would only apply if travel restrictions persist, the interpretation given to “travel restrictions” being very rigid. Following months of pressure from unions and staff, the initial very restrictive approach was timidly amended twice to allow a small package of 10 days teleworking away from place of employment combined with 5 leave days, well short of staff and unions’ expectations.
DG HR’s restrictive approach on issues about which staff felt quite strongly – financial support to teleworkers, the carryover of leave or teleworking from abroad – was in stark contrast with the totally careless manner in which a “new building policy” was introduced in the midst of the pandemic.
Soon after the pandemic broke out, OIB (following political instructions) came up with a “new building policy” based on the assumption that a large measure of teleworking would continue after the end of the pandemic, resulting in reduced building occupation. The pandemic was indeed proving that large scale teleworking could be a viable way to organise work. The problem was that the building policy was de facto anticipating and committing the institution to a new policy on working time and teleworking that was still to be developed.
The new buzzword for the administration became hot-desking. Overnight, even open space – which preserves personal space – appeared to have become a thing of the past. The new thing was the “first come, first served” office arrangement, whereby personal space was abolished and staff would take whatever space was available