Virtual work refers to a new reality where technologies enable employees to work from any place at any time. Increasing number of employers are using new ways of work and organisations facilitated by new information and communication technologies (ICT). Overall, ICT may offer flexible responses to a number of issues that employers and employees are concerned about. However, some problems or risks have been also identified, for example, working long hours, informal work, isolation, and new managerial practises, which have been associated with new forms of control and surveillance instead of increased workers’ autonomy. The identification of risks on virtual work has led European trade unions as representatives of employees to include the topic in their agenda. Nevertheless, how social dialogue and collective bargaining is addressing digitalisation and ICT work is an issue that remains to some extent unexplored, especially at company level.

The aim of the project is to analyse how social dialogue and collective bargaining are addressing the effects of virtual work on working conditions. More specifically, the following questions are addressed:

  • how is the topic of virtual work understood and framed by trade unions and employer organisations at national and sectoral level;
  • how has it been addressed in national, sectoral and company-level social dialogue and collective bargaining practices,
  • which good practises of social dialogue at company level addressing the topic of virtual work can be identified?

The study is includes five countries (Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Portugal, and Spain) and conenctrates on three sectors in which virtual work is most used (financial activities and computer programming, consultancy and related activities) or has become more widespread recently (care activities).

The results of the project show, that:

  • In the studied countries, other forms of virtual work beyond ‘regular telework’ have not been discussed or regulated at cross-sectoral level, neither through statutory legislation nor collective bargaining.
  • Compared to trade unions, peak-level employer organisations offer a more positive discourse on virtual work. In employer organisations’ narratives, virtual work is generally represented as a worker demand which, similar to other flexible work arrangements, aims to improve working conditions and, in particular, employees’ capacity to combine work and family responsibilities.
  • The extent to which the topic of virtual work has been discussed by social partners in the financial sector varies greatly among the five countries studied: In Austria and Denmark, debates on telework already took place in the 1990s; in Spain social partners have entered into the debate of virtual work recently in some subsectors and at company level; in Portugal the topic still remains outside the social partners’ agenda; and in Estonia there are no sector-related employer organisations taking part in collective bargaining, thus the topic is only addressed through human resource management policies.
  • In IT sector, sectoral social partners in all the countries studied except Estonia have bargained on telework. This is because a relatively high proportion of workers in this sector are requesting or using these arrangements. In Estonia, again the lack of employers’ organisations is the reason for the topic not being addressed through collective bargaining.
  • Regarding home health care sector, in all the countries studied (although to a lesser extent in Estonia), sectoral workers have progressively adopted several ICT devices which are mainly used for internal (work-team) communication purposes; working time management, registration and estimation; and electronic documentation/registration of working activities. The Estonian situation is interesting because, although this is one of the most digitalised countries, technological transformation has barely affected the home health sector.

In conclusion, human resource management policies, mainly designed to enhance employee engagement and improve company performance, do not seem the most effective way to prevent negative effects on working conditions associated with virtual work, instead the more effective way is to regulate the field in combination of legislation and company-level collective bargaining.

See also

Webpage of the Deepview project for additional information and publications.