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European Employers Embracing Some COVID Changes

As was the case in the United States, many employers in Europe had to quickly transition their workforces into a remote environment amid the COVID-19 outbreak.


Now, roughly eight months since the start of that transition, European employers are indicating that some of the changes forced by the pandemic are likely to stay. Remote work leads the way in this department, as 41% of the 750 European employers surveyed by Littler Mendelson P.C. said they will make changes to their remote work policies to allow for more flexibility as long as employees continue to demonstrate productivity while working from home.

The “European Employer COVID-19 Survey Report,” which included responses from HR executives and in-house counsel at employers in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom, also found that 80% of respondents are requiring or considering requiring more employees to work remotely either somewhat or to a great extent.

“Executives have come to see that their employees can be just as industrious working remotely, and now their task is to adapt to work-from-home arrangements over the long term,” said Paul Quain, Littler partner based in the UK. “In order to do that they’ll need to rethink many of the policies and procedures that have governed office work for years. They must also recognize that many aspects of remote work are regulated by unique rules, and that the law in this area is beginning to evolve.” 

Comparatively, in Littler’s previous survey just 50% of U.S. employers are requiring or considering requiring more employees to work remotely either somewhat or to a great extent.

“The way Europe looks at working from home really differs from how the United States looks at it,” said Stephan Swinkels, Littler’s Coordinating Partner International. “In the United States, it’s viewed as a temporary fix to solve a problem. In Europe, people have realized the way we used to work has changed permanently.”  

The reasons European employers said they are considering this shift include allowing for greater productivity of employees (41%), addressing the difficulty and cost of implementing new safety measures (38%) and allowing for the closure of offices (25%).

“The fact that more than four in 10 employers believe remote work promotes greater productivity represents a remarkable shift in attitudes,” said Anne-Valérie Michaux, Littler partner in Belgium. “As more employers offer flexible work options, matching that offering will quickly become more of a necessity for any employer competing for talent, particularly in a post-pandemic economic rebound.”

Employee Well-Being

Across the corporate world, employers increasingly recognize the importance of addressing workplace mental health and well-being. Littler’s survey provided support for this as respondents listed workplace mental health as their top concern, ranking it above sexual harassment and equal pay.

This year, most employers report taking at least some action to address their employees’ mental health and well-being during the pandemic. Roughly 57% of respondents said they’ve offered more flexible work schedules to accommodate employees’ personal needs, while 51% have solicited frequent feedback on their organizations’ pandemic response.

“The survey results suggest a fairly high level of effort from employers to offer flexibility and listen to employees’ concerns to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on their wellbeing — but there is more that can be done,” Swinkels said. “With the increased recognition of the importance of wellness to maintaining a productive and engaged workforce, employers can take additional steps, such as offering mental health services and training managers to help them spot these issues and support their teams.”

Additionally, managing vacation time has also proven challenging for European employers, as 34% of respondents have begun to see an uptick in requests for time off, and the vacation requests are causing operational headaches for 82% of that group.

Government Support and Workforce Reductions

At the start of the pandemic, several European governments implemented programs that allowed companies to keep employees on their payrolls by providing much of their base pay from a government fund. These wage subsidy programs helped prevent widespread job losses in the initial stage of the crisis, but critics argue that they only delayed inevitable workforce reductions and restructurings within struggling companies.

“As the pandemic’s economic damage deepens and with no end to the crisis in sight, many European employers are forced to make tough decisions about potential workforce reductions,” said Guillaume Desmoulin, Littler partner in France. “This is further complicated by the need to navigate legal requirements in place in the various countries in which they operate.”

Of the survey respondents whose organizations did accept government support, 59% expect to implement reductions in staff when the program ends. Just 17% of respondents expect they can maintain their current workforce without government aid. Further, most employers surveyed expect the reductions to happen quickly, as 63% said they would begin reductions as soon as the law allowed, before the government programs ended or within two weeks of their expiration. Only 10% said they would wait three months or longer.

How European governments approached their pandemic response differs from the U.S., which focused most of the relief efforts on assisting workers who were laid off or furloughed.

“European governments have chosen to prevent companies from letting people go because of COVID,” Swinkels said. “The U.S. support has been more focused on helping employees who got fired because of COVID — so more so problem solving instead of problem preventing.”

About the Author

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Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.

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