Telework likely to continue after Covid-19, but not on a large scale

This content was published on May 25, 2020
Many Swiss workers, like this teacher in French-speaking Switzerland, experienced telework for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic. Keystone / Jean-Christophe Bott

In Switzerland the Covid-19 pandemic has led to more people working from home, giving a boost to productivity and quality of life. But the trend may not continue in the same way once the crisis is over.

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shaken up the world of work. In Switzerland, many employers expanded remote working, or even introduced it for the first time, after the government imposed lockdown measures in mid-March. 

Should companies cover some of the costs of telework?

According to a recent Federal Court decision reported by the newspaper SonntagsZeitung, Swiss companies must cover part of the rent of employees who work from home. The case was brought by an employee of a Zurich firm before the Covid-19 pandemic. But experts disagree on the applicability of this ruling to the wave of telework observed during the crisis. 

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Working from home had already been gaining in popularity in recent years. In 2019, almost a quarterExternal link of the Swiss working population worked from home at least occasionally. This proportion doubled at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, according to a studyExternal link by the consulting firm Deloitte Switzerland. 

As authorities gradually lift Covid-19 restrictions, the question is what will be left of this large-scale work-from-home experiment. One result is clear: it will have allowed companies to see that most employees work more – not less – when they telecommute.

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Productivity increases 

The majority of respondents to the Deloitte survey said that working from home had not had a negative impact on their productivity. More than four in ten even felt that they had become more efficient. 

According to crisis manager Elena Debbaut, the effect of telework on overall productivity is variable. Employees working in sectors that rely on physical presence (administrative support, sales, etc.) can lose out.

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However, "the increase in productivity is very clear" in certain professions, and those related to information and communication technologies are the biggest winners, according to Debbaut. "With telework, there are no more unnecessary interruptions, no more social pressure around presenteeism or 'appearances'. Only the results count," she told

In a reportExternal link published in 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) made the same observation and recommended increasing home working. 

The report also highlighted the possibility of achieving a better work-life balance and reducing the need to commute. And for companies, the authors pointed out, telework meant having more motivated staff and seeing potential savings from reduced office space requirements.

Obstacles remain

Over the past two months, many workers have had the opportunity to experience these benefits, and Deloitte predicts that the number of people working remotely is unlikely to fall back to pre-crisis levels. Does this mean that the work-from-home policy will become widespread in Switzerland? 

Debbaut doubts it will.  "Nothing revolutionary will happen in the 18 to 24 months after the crisis," she said. There are still many obstacles.

Cultural barriers will be difficult to overcome. There is still resistance, despite changes in attitudes as a result of the pandemic, she pointed out. 

Another obstacle is the investments needed, especially in information technology, cyber security, and insurance. 

"You have to secure not just a single location, but a number of places […] Working from home is still more expensive and riskier than working on company premises. And the employee doesn't see this," said Debbaut.

For the moment, there is also no clear legal framework. 

"The labour law will have to be completely revised to include telework, and this will take a few years at least," Debbaut observed.

One trend, different scenarios

However, there is a clear global trend for working from home. Several scenarios are possible for Switzerland in the long term. For Debbaut, the most plausible one would fit into the existing framework. Remote working would increase on a case-by-case basis, but without it becoming widespread.

The best-case scenario would be one in which employees remain in Switzerland and telework alleviates pressure on housing and infrastructure in economic centres. But there is also a worst-case scenario involving the risk of abuse of the policy and so-called "teleworker uberisation": some companies might be tempted to pass on some of the operational costs to teleworkers or even relocate the Swiss workforce.

Switzerland: not a trailblazer in teleworking

The Federal Statistical Office includes even very occasional telework in its homeworking data. Of the nearly 25% of employees who work from home in Switzerland, only 3% do so regularly, that is, more than half of the time. The experts contacted by noted that many Swiss companies still lag behind on this policy, mainly for cultural reasons.

+ In 2010, Switzerland had its first Home Office Day 

In other countries, the figures vary widely. The last global studyExternal link on the issue in the European Union dates back to 2015. The average in the EU at that time was around 17%, but the range was from 8% in Italy to 38% in Denmark. In the United States, the share of the working population working almost 100% remotely before the crisis was slightly above 3%, and this proportion is estimated to have more than doubled in April, according to the Brookings InstituteExternal link

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