Telecommuting can lead to energy savings, but beware of the employees' pockets: "They don't pay us the expenses"

The government has recommended telecommuting as an energy saving measure. This can reduce consumption in an aggregate way, especially by car travel, but a recent study calls for a good evaluation of its implementation to verify if there really is a reduction in energy use, since it depends on numerous factors. In Spain, there is an added element to take into account so that the measure does not harm the most vulnerable. Teleworking is very recent, it landed in many cases with the pandemic in an improvised way and still faces important pending duties. For example, that many companies do not pay the expenses derived from the workers, even though the law requires it.

The person responsible for resurrecting teleworking, after the boost during the pandemic, has been the third vice president and head of Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera. Although not included in the saving measures decreeRibera recovered remote work as a recommendation for all public administrations and "big companies" in the face of the current energy crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine.

"A telecommuting that allows us to concentrate the schedules, the presence, save on travel, in the thermal consumption of the buildings", affirmed the minister.

Is telecommuting really a 'green' option? is the title and the question it analyzes a Eurofound study published in June. The response of the researcher, Martina Bisello, is "yes, potentially", but she warns that it is a "complex" issue that needs to be addressed in each case.

What points out the IEA (International Energy Agency) in some recommendations in March, the result of energy savings is clear in those situations in which there are many workers traveling by car due to the use of oil. Above all, if the journeys are long, as is often the case in large cities. But it may not be so in companies located in smaller municipalities or in rural areas where workers live nearby and walk to work. Or if the staff in question goes to work by public transport.

There are also other elements to take into account, such as the increase in energy consumption in the homes of employees. "In summer, offices have a higher energy demand compared to homes, on average", in cases where cooling is necessary, the study collects. "In contrast, heating in winter is more efficient in office buildings due to centralized systems and the proximity of employees."

In addition, the report reminds that employees are likely to come to the office from time to time, so work centers may remain open. The energy management of offices in these hybrid work modalities (from home and in the office) is another issue to take into account to conclude whether teleworking in a given company is more energy sustainable or not.

For example, if the company groups workers in smaller spaces or on certain days, reducing their energy consumption or if it maintains them despite the fact that some people are working from home. For this reason, the publication concludes that teleworking is a 'green' measure, "but only if it is supported by specific measures", such as "promoting the flexible use of space in offices to avoid heating, cooling or lighting of areas empty or little used", among others.

When talking about the "savings" of telecommuting, some employees may not have seen that discount given their experience. This is the case of Carmen (fictitious name), an administrative worker who lives in the Community of Madrid and walks to work. She works from home two or three days a week because there is no air conditioning in the office. "We sweat what is not written," she says, so the company has allowed them to telecommute in the summer. Of course, without any financial compensation.

"They don't pay us any expenses," answers Carmen. She assumes that telecommuting costs her money for the use of the air conditioning in her home, which she would not have if she were in the office for those hours, but given the high temperatures in Madrid, she does not consider another option. Given that she teleworks more than 30% of the day, the law obliges the company to compensate the expenses derived from the development of its activity. At her workplace, Carmen explains, "the boss doesn't want anyone to telecommute", so the measure is interpreted almost as "a favor" and the staff does not dare to demand payment of compensation.

Carmen's experience is not isolated. The unions warn that the compulsory compensation of expenses is not being complied with in many cases, especially in smaller companies. Also in other larger ones, such as contact centers, a situation that has led unions to the mobilization for not paying "not one euro" for telecommuting to a staffthe majority made up of women and with many partial days, which leave an average salary of "800 euros".

"Until the end of July, there were 43 labor agreements throughout Spain that regulated teleworking and only 6% regulate the associated costs," underlines José Varela, head of Digitization at UGT, despite the fact that the terms of economic compensation were very pending. collective bargaining in the telework law.

Carlos Gutiérrez, Secretary of Studies and Union Training of the CCOO, highlights the existence of legal representation of workers as a key element. "Where there is none, there are more abuses, the arbitrariness of employers is higher. If there is union representation, the rights of workers are guaranteed more and, in the event that companies do not comply, there is more mobilization," he maintains. .

Given the new recommendation of the Executive, it is worth considering whether teleworking will grow again in Spain. Remote work was anecdotal in the country before the pandemic, with 4% of employed persons carrying out their work activity from home regularly before the pandemic. But COVID multiplied it as a measure to stop contagion. According to the EPA, around 16% of workers frequently telecommute. That number has been declining and "occasional" teleworking has gained ground compared to the more usual "more than half the days of the week", as the following graph illustrates.

One of the reasons for this shift to more occasional teleworking can be found in the remote work legislation itself, says Eva Rimbau, professor of Economics and Business Studies at the UOC. "Teleworking of more than 30%, more than a day and a half, is discouraged, because it is the barrier to having to pay means," considers the economist, who believes that compensation proportional to the time of remote work would have eliminated that "barrier ".

This has happened to Susana (fictitious name), whose company limited teleworking to one day a week after allowing more days during the pandemic. "We believe that it is so as not to pay us anything for the expenses. In the pandemic they did not do it because they said that the law did not oblige it. Later, they reduced our teleworking to only one day," she explains to this medium. In her case, the measure would mean savings at this time of skyrocketing energy prices. "I have a long drive, so what I would save on gas I think makes up for what I would spend on the air light and computer," she calculates.

Although for many other workers, working from home is not an option. "I think it's forgotten, but not all of us can afford the conditions in our houses to be suitable for work," explains Esther, a young woman who lives alone and cannot afford to pay for an air conditioner in her house. The latest poverty data from the INE Survey of Living Conditions, from 2021, noted a maximum in the historical series of energy poverty, with 14.3% of the population in households that cannot maintain an adequate temperature at home. This was before the loop of skyrocketing prices in 2022.

"My apartment is like a sauna with these temperatures," says Esther, a situation that even with a fan does not alleviate, which is why she has decided to go to the office every day this summer, although she has the option of teleworking. What if she was sent home as an energy saving measure? "Right now I don't have a budget to put on air conditioning, not even a joke. I would try to go to the office and, if they didn't let me, I would go to my parents' or a friend's house to work, because you can't stay in my flat," he says. .

Carlos Gutiérrez (CCOO) points out that companies that want to promote teleworking must remember that the measure must be "voluntary", as required by law, and "the occupational risks" that the templates will face must always be assessed. From extreme heat to other psychosocial risks, such as isolation or excessive connectivity after hours.

The UGT Digitization representative recalls that remote work requires changes in the way of operating and directing staff, for example "in planning systems by objectives and in control based on mutual trust", among others. Professor Eva Rimbau agrees and highlights the possibility of advancing in necessary challenges at this time, such as the digitization of companies. "It is an opportunity for companies to rethink their processes. To analyze 'were we doing the right thing or could things be done differently?", She values. The teacher insists on addressing the measure in a planned manner, without the improvisation that occurred in the pandemic. "It is an opportunity, that they do not see it as 'we are going to telework for Russian gas'".

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