Remote working in ITC: from a COVID-19 measure to institutionalisation?

Remote working in IT and communications: a comparative analysis of remote working practices in Malta and Germany


By Matthew Borg

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected society, including in the way that work is carried out.

One major policy that governments used to control the virus’s spread was through social distancing regulations and, as a result, companies worked to find ways to limit the number of people in contact with each other, including by making it possible and even mandatory for employees to work remotely.

Consequently, and unexpectedly, many employees around the world were requested to work from home, kicking decades of failed attempts to broaden the use of remote work into high gear.

As the pandemic stabilises, transitioning slowly to a post-pandemic recovery, discussion is intensifying around the question of whether companies will go back to pre-pandemic practices, or whether they will adapt to a more agile and flexible way of working. It is not yet clear whether remote work arrangements will remain a short-term response to lockdown measures or whether they will be institutionalised, and at what level.

The pattern of remote work distribution varies across different economic sectors, being scarce in sectors requiring a fixed location with low autonomy, such as manufacturing, and prevailing in sectors with high ICT usage and autonomy, such as the IT and communication industry.

To clear up these uncertainties, my research makes a comparative analysis of remote working practices before and after the COVID-19 pandemic within the IT and Communication sector. Two countries – Germany and Malta, with similarities in the uptake of remote work – were chosen as cases and interviews were conducted with Maltese and German registered companies within the same industry, as well as with trade unions representing corresponding sectors. The purpose was to analyse how remote work is currently being adopted and regulated. How do companies and trade unions envision the future of remote working?

What was the remote work situation before the COVID-19 pandemic?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were large differences in the approach to remote work. Remote work was scarce in Malta, especially when compared with its European counterparts. The Maltese companies examined in this research only pursued working flexibility in making the start and finish times of work less rigid and acknowledged that remote work was only granted to those with a ‘valid’reason, such as to parents or guardians of children, or to those who have caring duties for their elderly parents.

Conversely, the German counterparts reported a wider, more flexible, and non-discriminatory use of remote work.

Remote work for Employers

After two years of pandemic, in which remote work suddenly became a widespread business practice, German companies report major gains in productivity, a result attributed by the interviewed company representatives to a decrease in interruptions and ‘chit chat’ associated with office open spaces. Interestingly, their Maltese counterparts reported approximately the same levels of production as before the pandemic.

What explains this divergence? Remote working has generally led workers to work more efficiently and effectively, facilitated by the digitisation of business processes and the use of online tools such as instant messaging and online meeting facilities, which decrease interruptions associated with visiting colleagues or travelling for meetings. This also led to a reduction in company costs and overhead, also cited as a top benefit by both Maltese and German companies.

The success of remote work-led German concerns to abandon plans to move to bigger office spaces. Both national counterparts report that better flexibility increased workers’ happiness, which they hope will help retention in an industry plagued by labour shortages.

However, despite the multitude of benefits resulting fromthese new forms of flexibility, Maltese companies lagged behind their German counterparts in the institutionalisation of new practices, with some still requiring employees to start their working day at a fixed time, even if working remotely.

On the other hand, the drawbacks to remote work reported by Maltese companies were found to be similar to the worries expressed by German firms. First, the lack of interaction between staff members was paradoxically cited as a major drawback, with the decrease of interactions negatively impacting creativity and innovation. The lack of ‘office bonding’ also contributes to a culture of individualism, which fragments the workforce due to a lack of work relationships, and which in turn is tied to a decrease in workers’ ambition.

Second, mental health is also cited as a major concern, with companies naming employee burnout as a growing problem.

Finally, the lack of managerial control is a worry shared by both Maltese and German executives, with interviews revealing rising complaints about off-site staff relying on on-site staff to carry out duties for them.

Remote work for the employees

Across the board, trade unions covering the ICT sector acknowledged that remote work brings a multitude of opportunities and risks that vary according to the personal characteristics and occupational position of employees. For employees, remote work promises greater time and location flexibility, increased autonomy, enhanced work-life balance, and a reduction in commuting time. It may also provide better employment opportunities for people with caring responsibilities.

However, with higher autonomy, remote work is also shown to lead to an increase of stress (and even longer working hours) owing to an intensification of self-discipline – also referred to as the “autonomy paradox”, in which highly selfmotivated workers push themselves harder than their direct superiors.

As a result, those remote workers find it difficult to manage boundaries between work and family time and to cope with long hours, a worry that company representatives share.

The lack of space and ergonomic equipment at home also increases workers’ health risks – an issue for companies who must abide by health and safety laws in this new configuration – as well as increasing social isolation and loneliness associated with a lack of faceto-face interactions, which negatively affects mental health.

Crucially, the data that emerged from the interviews with employers and trade unions suggest a general agreement: that a hybrid work model is the most ideal and likely scenario for the near future of work.

Employees in this model may work from home for two or three days a week, provided their role and tasks allow it. In this way, employees can alternate between various locations, as allowed by law.

Both company and union representatives from both countries acknowledged the benefits of remote work and agree that its future institutionalisation – especially in regulatory terms – will be crucial for improving its adaptation and reducing legal grey areas.

Some EU Member States such as Belgium and France have already introduced national approaches addressing remote work, giving workers the right to work remotely once a week. Both Germany and Malta have statutory definitions and specific legislative frameworks on the use of telework set up in their labour code and other related legislation.

However, Germany is already in advanced discussions about institutionalising remote work as a labour right, whereasin Malta these discussions do not exist.

One of the most important factors that will determine the form and institutionalisation of remote work is the new EU ‘right to disconnect and telework’ directive, which aims to reduce the negative effects of remote work by safeguarding employees’ time-off, thus ensuring enough rest periods and a better work-life balance. Once this is made a directive, all EU Member States will need to apply it to their legislations.

What can managers do in the short term to address remote work?

The net effect of remote work on companies in Germany and Malta going forward largely hinges on the ability of managers to effectively coach and motivate workers. For this to be successful, my research data suggests that a shift in organisational culture is necessary: one that moves away from micromanaging attendance and input and towards management by objectives and the establishment of trust-based relationships, which can at times be challenging in companies with deeply embedded ‘traditional’ workplace practices.

Second, the drafting of a remote working policy is crucial to clear up grey areas and offer management and workers alike clear guidance on their obligations towards each other.

Third, learning and development should be at the forefront of organisations’ institutionalisation of remote work: not only for the purposes of helping them grow and innovate in this new environment, but also to help workers by providing advice on dealing with stress and establishing boundaries around work and family life.

This research was conducted in partial fulfilment of a Master’s Degree in International Business Consulting and Human Resource Management at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, an eighteen-month intensive program (conducted in English) that deals with the central questions of Strategic Human Resource Management. Finance by the ENDEAVOUR Scholarships Scheme for making this training and the resulting research on the future of remote work, possible. 

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