‘Providing tools does not mean you’ve bought one’s life’ – UĦM on remote working and Right to Disconnect

UĦM - Voice of the Workers CEO Josef Vella

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Employers must understand that just because they provide the option and the tools for their employees to work remotely, they have not bought one’s entire life, UĦM – Voice of the Workers CEO Josef Vella said in an interview with The Malta Business Weekly.

One of the most talked about topics during the Covid-19 pandemic was the rapid digital shift that the economy and the labour market experienced with levels of remote workers being higher than ever.

 The Malta Business Weekly sat with UĦM CEO Josef Vella to discuss this switch as well as the importance of the Right to Disconnect, which has been recently approved by the majority of the European Parliament, within this context.

Remote-working; evolution of the workplace and work mentality

Vella said that remote working is a positive thing as it is simply building a new concept of what a workplace is which has been too focused on employees getting to work on time and working their designated hours.

“This is the evolution into a task-based working world where we are realising that measuring work on whether an employee works a set number of hours is not the most accurate method of assessment.”

In turn, people have more flexibility with their work hours which is quite impactful for parents who need to work around their children’s schedule, he added.

Apart from helping the individual, remote benefits the company itself since it does not need to stay looking for offices that will accommodate all of its employees as they will never be there together at one go. There is also the reduction in the use of papers as digitalisation has made companies opt for cloud-based storage.

Vella also noted the positive impact it leaves on the environment “as we have seen during the pandemic due to less traffic in the streets leading to a reduction in emissions.”

Despite this positive outlook, he warned against employers taking remote working to the extreme and abusing from it.

“We have come across many situations where employers think that just because they gave employees the option to work remotely, they can contact them at any time. However, just because you provide the tools, it does not mean that you’ve bought that person’s life,” Vella remarked.

“The important thing here is to strike a balance with the person’s quality of life. Do we want an economy based on productivity as an end in itself? If the answer is yes, then we are headed in the right direction with digitalisation. However, I have always been taught that the end goal is for productivity to be a means to an end, that is, the person living a more fulfilled life.”

He said that for this to happen, managers need to be psychologically in favour of remote working, meaning that they have to be ready to change their managing style which requires a change in mentality.

When asked, Vella said that the union has not quite fully understood the government’s stance on this system as it has sent some mixed messages about it when the Covid-19 pandemic was slowing down during the summer seasons and workers were being encouraged to go back to the workplace which left a bad taste among employees.

“Additionally, if you are providing the option of remote working, it should not be the union that is fighting to regulate it; it should be a policy across the board.”

Right to Disconnect; implementation requires holistic approach

Statistics have shown that 30% of telework workers state that they are working during non-working hours as they feel the need to reply to a message, call or email, especially when they are at home. One way in which the EU is trying to regulate this, or any abuse from employers, is through the Right to Disconnect. 

The Malta Business Weekly asked Vella what is required for this right to be implemented locally to which he replied that a holistic approach is required.

“The one thing we really need to be careful of is that the EU releases a directive that is clear and with no room for interpretation. Once this is established, we can implement it in our law and I believe that for this to happen one has to consider the specifics of different jobs,” he said.

As an example, the Right to Disconnect can be easily implemented for clerical work, but the law has to be adapted around the needs of doctors or search and rescue personnel whose profession requires them to be on call.

“The most important thing, however, is how much we will truly believe in this system, respect it and ingrain it into our attitudes. The worst thing that can happen is for employees to look for lacunas in the law in order to abuse it which would prolong the period needed to find the right balance.”

Vella was asked if he thinks that we are lagging behind seeing that countries like France and Spain have implemented similar measures in previous years already.

“Unfortunately, we are always a bit late in anything that we do, and while globalisation has helped in some respects, things like this Right to Disconnect I am not surprised at all that we are at the forefront,” he noted.

He remarked that most rights are raised in countries like France where people are revolutionary and are assertive on what rights they have.

“In Malta, we lack this assertiveness. As our famous saying goes ‘jew nejja jew maħruqa’ (it’s either raw or burnt), we look at extremes, but assertiveness is the middle ground. We have to look at our psycho-social mentality which could be linked to the centuries of colonisation which have made us take the role of servants, waiting for a wake-up call to be handed to us. Things are changing, however, especially with the younger generation.”

Asked if the union plans to help enforce this right, Vella said urged trade union memberships, especially for low-income brackets who are the people with the least leverage in the market. Whenever there’s a union involved, abuse is always lowered, and the government should encourage workers to join unions for this reason.

He explained that he does not have much faith in physical enforcement since it is impossible to check every person within a labour market of 250,000 people.

“We are living in a digitalized world, so we need to find a just-in-time, digital solution,” Vella noted while making reference to the Union’s call for a digital platform that holds all the necessary contracts and clauses that an employer and employee share according to Maltese law which has not been implemented yet despite getting the government’s approval.

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