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12th Apr 2024

The hidden inequalities of telework across the EU

  • Working from home is a trend that, even before the pandemic, was mainly found among managers, the vast majority of whom are men (Photo: Unsplash)
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Before COVID-19, only five percent of Europeans regularly worked from home, a figure very similar to that of the previous decade.

Now, the potential for teleworking in the EU is estimated to be around 40 percent, with an average uptake of 24 percent already in 2021.

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Experts point out that the trend is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels, so teleworking is here to stay, but where is it heading, where is it more widespread and why?

According to statistics from the EU labour force survey (LFS), the countries where teleworking is most widespread are the Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg, where half of the population usually or sometimes works from home.

At the other end of the spectrum are Romania, Cyprus and Hungary, where the use of teleworking is rather low, at around seven to 13 percent.

How can these differences be explained? The main factors behind these figures could be cultural differences and the policies in place, rather than the industrial structure of some countries versus others, as even in the same sectors, such as telecommunications, there is a big contrast in the uptake of teleworking.

In 2019, telework was more common in Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which also had a higher proportion of workers teleworking during the pandemic.

However, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) points out that a combination of factors helps to explain the disparity across the EU.

These include different management styles and flexible working policies, the level of digital skills, the number of small and large companies (as larger companies are typically more likely to adopt teleworking), or the proportion of those who are self-employed — as their office is often their home.

But the JRC also notes: "As the pandemic exacerbates the divide between those who can easily transition to working from home and those who cannot, inequality is set to increase".

Among the most unequal EU countries, Romania, Latvia, Cyprus, and the Czech Republic stand out.

Inequality is measured by a score. The lower the score, the smaller the differences in unused potential between different socio-demographic groups, i.e. between men and women, between migrants and non-migrants, or between young people and adults, to name but a few.

At EU level, men continue to telework more than women. A fact that must be understood together with the type of positions they hold.

"The uptake of teleworking is not necessarily linked to the potential, it is to some extent, but it's also very much explained by occupational status," Tom Schraepen, a consultant at the Brussels-based economic think-tank Bruegel, told EUobserver.

Working from home is a trend that, even before the pandemic, was mainly found among managers, the vast majority of whom are men.

In 2020, only one in three managers in the EU was a woman, according to Eurostat figures.

And while the pandemic has increased the uptake of telework among clerical support workers across the EU, it is more widespread among well-paid individuals, according to the dashboard created by the Bruegel researcher.

(Photo: Bruegel, Tom Schraepen)

"Managers have a lower potential than clerical workers, but they have a higher uptake," Schraepen said.

The increase in teleworking in the EU in the wake of the pandemic has not made these inequalities disappear, but it has made other inequalities vanish, such as the gap in the uptake of telework between those who have children and those who do not.

From 2012 to 2021, the difference is close to zero.

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