Portugal’s ‘Game Changer’ Remote Work Law: Lessons For Kenya

Photo/ Varsity Scope

At the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, many companies around the world allowed their employees to work from home. It was one of the temporary Covid-19 containment measures intended to slow down the spread of the virus. But as economies reopened, most companies adopted Work From Home as a permanent solution. A survey by IBM showed that 54 percent of employees in the United States preferred working remotely on a permanent basis.

Companies such as Google, Mastercard, Fujitsu, and Atlassian are among the companies that now allow employees to work from home permanently.

Back home in Kenya, companies such as Safaricom and Nation Media Group allowed their employees to work from home during the pandemic. The East African reported that 95 percent of Safaricom’s workforce had been asked to work from home. Nation rolled out the “Safe Nation” business continuity plan to allow for remote work.

M-KOPA also allows its technical teams to work remotely on a full-time basis.

The problem with remote work

Remote work emerged as valuable contingent options amid the pandemic. It offered employees flexibility, agility, convenience, better work/life balance, and improved their wellbeing, productivity, and motivation.

But there is one major problem with working from home. 

Employees are at risk of potential burnout as there’s no clear physical distinction between work and home life. They work for longer hours as they hardly know when to switch off from work. They are also called in to perform some duties by their bosses outside of work hours. Remote employees feel like they have something to prove and earn the trust of their employers that they’re able to work remotely.

This puts employers at risk of  increased stress and inevitable burnout. 

A survey by Monster.com, a global employment website, revealed that 69 percent of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home. Most of them have difficulty separating home life from work.

“Ideally, we should be putting in four hours of work per day as stipulated in our contracts. This is tracked on the system. But you are sometimes called in to work, often to cover for absentee employees, even after completing our scheduled work. It’s more of a coercion than a request so you can’t really say no,” an employee at a Kenyan tech firm told Labour.Watch on condition of anonymity. 

But employers are saying it’s difficult to measure productivity for remote employees, so they can’t pay for overtime.

“We can’t tell whether they are doing our work during the designated hours, so we can’t really compensate them for overtime when they say they were working up to 9 pm. It’s a new concept that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around,” a HR manager told Labour.Watch.

Many employees have also had to shoulder the costs of setting up their homes suitably for work, causing financial constraints that pile on to their stress.

Portugal bans contacting employees outside of work hours

However, Portugal seems to have found a solution to the problem.

The country has passed new labor laws which include a ban on bosses contacting employees outside of working hours.

Under the new law, employers should only contact employees after work hours in the event of an emergency. Employees will be entitled to at least 11 consecutive hours of “night rest.” Employers who violate this law risk paying hefty fines.

But the law will only apply to companies that have more than ten employees.

Additionally, employers will have to organize face-to-face meetings with remote employees every two months besides contributing to their staff’s work-from-home expenses, such as internet and electricity.

Not all of the proposed rules were approved by lawmakers, however. For instance, the Portuguese Parliament reportedly did not pass a proposal to give workers the “right to disconnect” and turn off their work devices at the end of the day. 

Telecommuting is a “game changer”

Portugal’s Minister of Labour, Ana Mendes Godinho, hailed telecommuting as a game changer that gives employees “the power to decide where and from who they want to work from.”

The country relied on data showing that people have been working longer hours while at home during the coronavirus pandemic to pass the new labour laws.

“The pandemic has accelerated the need to regulate what needs to be regulated,” the Minister said.

“Telework can be a ‘game changer’ if we profit from the advantages and reduce the disadvantages,” she added.

Portugal is the first European country to alter its remote working rules.

According to Mendes Godinho, the new laws will help to build a healthy remote working culture which could attract foreign foreign remote workers seeking a change of scenery to Portugal.

“We consider Portugal one of the best places in the world for these digital nomads and remote workers to choose to live in, we want to attract them to Portugal,” she said.

Members of the European Parliament voted in favour of implementing a “right to disconnect” law across the bloc. It has already been introduced in some form in some European countries such as Spain and France while the UK is pushing for it.

Maybe Kenya can borrow a leaf and take the first step towards regulating remote work.

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