In Spain, remote work makes comeback amid surge in coronavirus cases

Telecoms and large banks are leading the way and experts hope smaller businesses will follow suit, despite the lack of official government guidelines

The offices of BeeDIGITAL in San Sebastián de los Reyes (Madrid).
The offices of BeeDIGITAL in San Sebastián de los Reyes (Madrid).Olmo Calvo

The swift spread of the new coronavirus variant is forcing Spanish companies to go slower with their return-to-the-workplace policies.

Telecoms in particular have been the first to give employees the option of 100% remote work, as they did in the early days of the pandemic. Other large companies, such as the banks BBVA and Banco Santander and the insurance group Mapfre, are offering more work-from-home time during the holidays as case numbers continue to soar across Spain.

Government agencies are following suit: the Tax Agency has told its employees to work from home at least until January 10, and the government of Catalonia has made remote work “a priority” for its own workers.

A growing chorus of voices in labor and healthcare now recommend postponing a return to in-office work. Other European countries are already taking steps: Portugal has established mandatory remote work between December 25 and January 9, while the Netherlands has extended that deadline to January 14.

In Spain, there are no official government guidelines so far, and labor unions are hoping that smaller companies will take a cue from corporate giants instead. “What the large companies do will have a traction effect, but for most small and medium enterprises to take measures, it usually requires a clear message from the authorities,” said José Varela, head of digitalization at the union UGT.

Telefónica has been the first to offer its entire staff the possibility of working fully from home until January 7, when the situation will be reviewed. Until now, the telecom giant had a hybrid work system in place that allowed for two days of work from home, plus an additional one as an option. Spain’s three other major telecoms operators, Vodafone, Orange and MásMóvil, soon introduced similar measures.

Shutting down offices almost from one day to the next in early 2020 was a stressful event for many companies. But now that Spain is into its sixth coronavirus wave, a return to remote working should be a smoother process. “We’ve learned to be flexible and to adapt to conditions; we are now better prepared,” said Mireia las Heras, who teaches at the IESE business school. This expert believes that it is currently impossible to set a clear date for a return to in-office work because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. “Let’s see what happens with schools after the holidays, and the situation with infections, because the trend is for them to go up,” she noted.

What the large companies do will have a traction effect, but for most small and medium enterprises to take measures, it usually requires a clear message from the authorities
José Varela, UGT union

In the banking sector, employees performing corporate work may stay home (those working face-to-face with customers at bank branches are considered to be performing essential work and cannot benefit from the measure). Banco Santander has told teams to get organized so members can work remotely, and the bank is considering doing Covid tests on returning employees after the Christmas holidays. And BBVA has made in-office work voluntary for employees working in central services.

The insurance group Mapfre is letting employees work from home and those who do come into the office can go home at lunch time and work remotely the rest of the day.

The energy giant Repsol has not taken any additional measures against Covid-19 for now, according to company sources. Repsol has a hybrid model in place that lets employees work from home up to three days a week. An estimated 70% of workers who are eligible for remote work (those working at gas stations and refineries are not) have taken up the offer.

Google Spain, as the company is doing elsewhere in the world, has dropped a January return and will instead see how the pandemic progresses before announcing a new timeline for going back to the office.

One step forward, one step back

One of the most recurring statements heard during the pandemic was that remote work was here to stay. But statistics from recent months show that once infection levels came down, businesses prioritized a return to the workplace.

The number of people working from home regularly (over half of the working week) dropped from 16% at the height of the pandemic to 8% in the third quarter of the year, according to official figures.

Juan Varela of UGT says that remote work has not taken hold because Spain’s corporate world still emphasizes in-person work. So far this year, only 4% of bargaining agreements have added remote work clauses, and the so-called “right to disconnect” has only been encoded in 20 bargaining agreements.

A new Spanish law that went into effect in the summer established a set of conditions for people performing remote work more than 30% of the time, but it does not apply when employees are sent home due to a pandemic. “When infections rise, businesses allow remote work, but in many cases, when the situation goes back to normal they prefer for staff to go back to the office,” notes Varela.

Mireia las Heras of IESE laments the fact that remote work is not being used more widely. “We should make the most of this experience and of the things we have learned,” she says. “But apparently we haven’t learned very much, judging by the morning traffic snarls.”

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