A telework cure for traffic congestion: telework policies in the Netherlands and Finland to inform a Belgian prognosis

The value of telework for workers, employers and society has been researched extensively. This contribution will focus on the potential impact of telework on commuting and mobility at large. It is worth reminding, however, that telework can cause multiple effects, which often tie into one another. The UK Royal Society for Public Health, for instance, was in favour of home work in order to develop a healthier workforce, which it associates with a less stressful commute. Countries with a high incidence of regular telework seem to have a policy on telework and mobility or its environmental impact. The Belgian government’s position on this is less clear. The need for an evaluation of our current rules on home work could be used to introduce telework as a broader public policy instrument that relates to traffic congestion, environmental issues, workers’ wellbeing, etc.

The definitions of home work and telework show significant overlap.  Home work can be defined as manual or cognitive work carried out from premises other than the workplace of the employer, against remuneration, which results in a product or service as specified by the employer. Telework is more limited in scope. It concerns a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, which limits the scope, in principle, to cognitive work.

Telework is sometimes depicted in the media as a measure that may alleviate traffic congestion or even lead to an overall healthier environment. A publication of the Belgian Federal Public Service Mobility and Transport (2018) researches the potential of telework in that regard. It concludes that telework has a positive impact on mobility. At the time of the research, 17 % of teleworkers apparently avoided 7 % of the overall, average kilometres spent commuting. Only 55% would make an extra trip during their teleworking day. This often happened outside of rush hours. Academic research on the impact of telework on mobility reaches varied results. Some researchers argue that the decrease in kilometres spent commuting risks, for example, being outbalanced by the increase in overall kilometres driven by the household. Academic research nevertheless partly affirms the findings of the Federal Public Service and “indicates clearly that telework in companies in the Brussels Capital Region could provide a significant external transport costs saving.

Policy examples exist in the Netherlands and Finland

Some governments have already acknowledged a link between telework and mobility. The Labour Foundation in the Netherlands issued a recommendation on Mobility and Telework in 2009, which aims to encourage employers and employees to enter into consultation to arrive at a mobility policy that

  1. prevents congestion,
  2. improves the accessibility of regions and companies and
  3. promotes a better work-life balance.

Teleworking would play a key role in that regard. Finnish research proposed the concept of “eco-managed telework” to clarify that “the environmental benefits from telework are not automatic.” This notion subsequently informed a publication from 2009 of the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy.

Both countries rely primarily on employers as the main driver for change. The documents adopt detailed approaches with precise instructions. Telework specific legislation or regulation on the national level is limited. Telework policies operate in a decentralized way and are designed on the enterprise and sectoral level. Direct Requests made by the Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organization indicate that both countries’ governments wish to treat teleworkers like regular employees, to be covered by regular labour law Acts.

Belgium seems to lag behind

According to a Eurostat dataset, the percentage of employed persons who usually worked from home in 2018, was highest in the Netherlands (14%), with Finland coming in second (13.3%). Belgium ranks eight (6.6%) and, therefore, ends 0.8% higher than the average in the Euro area. Regular telework is, thus, used to a considerable extent in Belgium, albeit not half as much as it is in the Netherlands and Finland. Crucially, while the Netherlands and Finland show a steady increase in the use of regular telework, the statistics on Belgium show a decline. They indicate that 8.8% of employed persons teleworked regularly in 2008, after which it peaked in 2011 at 9.9%. It subsequently kept decreasing until it reached 6.6% in 2018. A comparable decrease can be ascertained in, for instance, Denmark, France and Iceland. Discourse on the use of telework as a public policy tool may have something to do with these increases and decreases.

Such a discourse seems to be lacking in Belgium. The Belgian regulatory environment mainly hinges on the national collective agreement no. 85 from 2005, which is in large part a transposition of the European International Framework Agreement on Telework. The collective agreement covers telework that takes place regularly and not on an occasional basis. Slight amendments have been made in 2008. The Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organization noted in 2015 and 2018 that although the Belgian Council of Ministers had decided in 2004 to conduct an evaluation of the legal provisions relating to home work (which includes telework), “the [Belgian] Government indicate[d] that this evaluation has not yet been carried out.

Time to take telework seriously

Inspiration for such an evaluation can be found in the joint ILO-Eurofound report (2017) that considers the effects of telework and ICT- mobile work by synthesising findings of national studies from 15 countries and the sixth European Working Conditions Survey (2015). The report states that “policies regarding T/ICTM at the national, sectoral and organisational levels need to be adapted dynamically to technological advancements, as well as the needs and preferences of workers and employers.” Considering the different digital environment in 2019, compared to 2004-05, and the statistics depicted above, the time seems right to conduct such an exercise.

Mathias Wouters is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law of KU Leuven. He mainly researches new forms of employment and the integration of platform work into labour law at the Institute for Labour Law.


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