EU lawmakers should make sure they see the full effects of technological change on working patterns before they regulate them, as we are likely to see a continued shift towards remote and flexible employment, policymakers said at an event hosted by EURACTIV on the future of work across the bloc.
“We need to see how innovation is changing our lives before we try to control it,” Eva Kaili, a Greek centre–left MEP, told the participants.
A steady increase in remote work before COVID–19 has been accelerated by the pandemic, as firms were left with little option after governments across Europe introduced measures to prevent people from going to their offices to control the spread of the pandemic.
Kaili, who chairs the Future of Science and Technology Panel in the European Parliament, pointed to new legislation on teleworking in Greece, which introduces the right for employees working remotely to disconnect, rather than be permanently on call, a demand made by the European Parliament earlier this year and seen as key to ensuring work/life balance.
Mark Judd, vice–president at cloud software firm Workday, added that firms should be “careful not to take the humanity out of work by overdigitising.”
“We need to make sure we use digitalisation responsibly,” he said.
Scott Marcus, a senior research fellow at Bruegel, commented that the shift to remote work had “seen an explosion…once companies realised that they had to do it.”
“We are already seeing a return to normalcy but it will be different to the old normalcy,” he said, adding that, from EU lawmakers, “the focus should not be about building back better but building new better.”
The panellists also focused on the challenges posed by the gig and platform economies, warning that Europe is likely to see a continued shift towards more flexible employment.
“We are seeing a new breed of worker via the gig and platform economy,” said Judd.
That has posed questions and led to a series of court cases across Europe on whether gig and platform economy workers can be classified as employees or self–employed.
“There has been a great deal of fuss about the gig economy and whether they are self-employed or not. If there were better social protection for the self–employed then most of these problems would go away,” said Scott Marcus.
However, he noted that the potential for EU activity on this is limited because social protection legislation is dealt with at member state level.
Striking a slightly different tone, Michael Freytag, Europe public affairs manager at the World Employment Confederation, played down the prospect of fundamental changes to the world of work.
He remarked that “the gig economy doesn’t exist. Platform work is not new… you have platform work that does the same things as temporary agencies,” said Freytag.
“Platform and gig work is very heterogenous,” he added, cautioning that the European Commission should not just focus on food delivery and taxi services as it looks at how to regulate platform and gig economy work,.
“The future of work will look very much like the past. We need to adapt, reform and rebuild and we can only do it together,” he added.
The panellists also emphasised the need for investment in life–long learning, pointing out that training and retraining is going to be necessary for most people over the coming years.
“We need a response that focuses on human goals and needs. This will focus on more equity at work, increasing focus on training, not just for the young but all of us,” said Marcus.
Digitalisation is one of the priorities of the €750 billion EU Recovery and Resilience Facility, designed to kickstart the European economy after the pandemic, with 20% of the funding to be allocated to projects promoting digitalisation and sustainability.
“This has the ability to be transformative,” said Marcus, adding that “things that were on the shopping list now have some money behind them”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]