When COVID-19 hit, commuting suddenly became a thing of the past and many home offices took the form of kitchen tables or even piles of pillows on beds. While Zoom fad may have been the ultimate in convenience for some, for many the isolation and lack of separation between work and home has been torturous, exacerbating an already escalating loneliness and mental health crisis.
Enabled by the digital age and accelerated by the pandemic, remote work is far more complex than the Instagram ideal of a “digital nomad” swaying with his laptop in a hammock between palm trees. Still, it can offer numerous benefits – for both employers and employees.
For example, companies are not bound by geographic borders, but gain access to a global talent pool. Enabling remote work can also increase attractiveness to potential new hires and increase retention rates. In addition, employers can save costs for office space and ancillary costs.
Employees, on the other hand, spend less time commuting (which also has environmental benefits), have more time with family, are free to live where they want, and have access to more diverse opportunities.
In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that around 1.3 billion people worldwide suffer from long-term mental or physical disabilities. Therefore, remote work is also an issue of access to employment and financial inclusion.
TNW caught up with the originators of a document called the European Charter for Digital Wellbeing at Work – Filipa Matos, VP Special Ops at Remote, and Ben Marks, impact entrepreneur, founder and CEO of the #workanywhere campaign.
“For many, many of these people, remote work equates to access to work, a basic human right. And that was really the basis for us creating the Work From Anywhere campaign — to try and spark that culture shift and show that remote work is actually about economic justice,” said Marks. “It’s not just about relatively privileged people avoiding commuting.”
Go beyond the buzzwords
But working remotely and largely digitally also comes with a number of specific challenges. Blurred lines between work and personal life, loneliness, and possibly forgetting about professional advancement due to a lack of personal connections are all things that can lead to unhealthy stress and potential burnout.
Therefore, protecting the well-being of remote workers goes well beyond enabling Visa for digital nomadsand providing stable internet connections. Most organizations tend to shift the responsibility for their well-being onto the individual (“Have you tried yoga yet?”), aided by the social media barrage of #self-care, albeit unwittingly and well-meaning.
“I think we have to have an open mind to understand that this reality isn’t just about buzzwords,” Matos said. “People talk about mental health issues as if it’s something that’s trending or something we should all care about without actually putting it into practice.”
The European Charter for Wellbeing in the Digital Workplace
Under the umbrella of the Future Workforce Alliance (FWA) – a multidisciplinary network of policymakers, academics and public and private stakeholders – Marks and Matos have put together the European Charter for Wellbeing in the Digital Workplace. It is a non-binding document that encourages policymakers and businesses to acknowledge the existence of this growing part of the population – and to do better.
The Charter was endorsed and co-signed by 31 MEPs earlier this summer. It proposes establishing official guidelines and best practices for organizations with hybrid or fully distributed workforces, with a focus on four key areas: life outside of work; social connection; privacy and trust; and digital wellbeing.
Following the launch of the charter in June, the FWA is now working with stakeholders to identify best practices that can be codified into EU law.
life beyond work
The ‘life beyond work’ segment builds on the ‘right to be unavailable’ proposal (which is not yet being enforced across the Union but is being enforced in individual member states such as France and Spain) and ensures that measures such as the right not to be dealing with work, communication beyond working hours takes into account the special features of digital workplaces.
It also calls for practices where remote workers do not have worse career prospects compared to their in-office counterparts. It also calls for the term ‘life-work balance’ to be used in place of ‘work-life balance’ in all EU legal and policy documents in order to shift the focus.
“Social Connection” focuses on access to coworking spaces. Marks highlights Ireland as a political role model, which runs a national network called Connected Hubs. Launched in May 2021, the government initiative includes 323 coworking spaces across the country. Ireland has a high proportion of remote workers: in 2021, 39.3% of the workforce in East and Central Ireland were working from home (only the Stockholm region had a higher proportion at 40.5%).
In the meantime, businesses also need to do their part in making coworking spaces easier for their remote workers to access. For example, Remote offers its employees a stipend so that they can access social wellbeing and professional inspiration coworking spaces can offer.
“We can just meet someone, maybe colleagues from our own company, and go to a coworking space for a day or two,” Matos said of the loneliness remedy. “It makes a real difference for me because I can define my needs as an individual.”
privacy and trust
The privacy and trust pillar aims to ban or restrict “digital leashes” technologies used to monitor workers.
“When we trust people and we focus on results, and when we focus on their expertise, we say, ‘Hey, we hired you.’ If I hired you, that means I trust you. I don’t come from a place where I don’t trust you to begin with and then you have to earn my trust. [Employers] “We have to start with trust in hiring,” Matos shared.
Under the umbrella term “digital wellness”, signatories to the charter agree to recognize a link between increased use of technology and mental health problems, including attentional and behavioral problems.
In addition, they will seek to create evidence-based, legal definitions of what constitutes a “healthy relationship with technology in the workplace” and cross-industry support for tools and practices that moderate the use of technology for better health and well-being to promote.
In Marks’ words, “We created this charter to modernize the approach to workforce wellbeing and to pave the way for the next generation of protection of workers’ rights related to wellbeing and mental health.”
You pick up the phone and open the “Instagram/X/other distraction – drug of choice” icon and before you know it it’s been 15 minutes where you’re instantly switching context and you’re wondering why you’re doing it feeling exhausted? Unfortunately, that’s still up to you (and maybe the billions of dollars Big Tech is pouring into behavioral algorithms).
But as someone who has worked entirely remotely for three years, watching as (remotely) friends and colleagues just rolled out of bed and then ate breakfast, lunch and often even dinner in front of their computer screen, is he unable to eat a go because “they will see that I’m not online”. It’s encouraging to know someone is taking care of the rest.