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Many employees unsure of teleworking rules as offices reopen

Illustration picture shows a man working from home with a laptop and a mobile phone, in Brussels, Saturday 13 June 2020. (BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
06:24 14/09/2021

As the restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis continue to ease rule by rule, some people are preparing to fully return to their place of work, whether by choice or by request. But many are still wondering whether teleworking remains an option for them, either because of the flexibility it offers or because they harbour concerns over the health situation.

The official position is that, since 1 September, teleworking is no longer recommended, except in Brussels, where the health situation remains complicated. However, Belgium’s Consultative Committee, which took this decision on August 20, invites companies to "structurally anchor teleworking" – meaning the option to work from home should be offered to employees as part of a firm’s employment agreement.

This “invitation” leaves the decision up to your employer, who has to decide on a position in the coming weeks. "Companies will have to find the right solution for their company, their sector, their teams and their employees and strike a balance between the well-being in their private and professional life, but also the well-being of society," says Joris Vandersteene, Senior Manager of HR Projects at the Federation of Enterprises of Belgium.

Establishing an understanding with your employer over whether teleworking can continue should happen sooner rather than later, according to FPS Employment, the federal labour department. The telework agreement must be the subject of "a written agreement between employer and employee at the time when the teleworker begins the execution of telework, at the latest," it writes.

FPS Employment also reminds employees – and employers – that teleworkers must continue to benefit from working conditions comparable to those of workers employed on company premises. "The employer must provide the necessary equipment for teleworking, install and maintain it," says FPS Employment. “In the event that the teleworker uses their own equipment, the employer shall bear the costs of installing computer programmes, operating costs and the cost of depreciation and maintenance."

What about teleworking in Brussels? Given the health situation in the capital, where one in two Brussels residents is fully vaccinated, the Consultative Committee decided on 20 August that teleworking remained recommended. This was upgraded to "strongly recommended" for employees of the federal public services located in the Brussels region a few days later. The percentage of teleworkers in all federal public services still averaged over 86% in mid-July.

While a return to normality in Brussels is still some way off, "the objective is to reach an average of two days of telework per employee per week," said a government source. “Important preconditions such as a telework allowance, the provision of equipment, the right to disconnect and a plan for more psychological support are already being drawn up."

A teleworking compensation structure for employees in the federal public services is under discussion, with the National Social Security Office and tax authority FPS Finance already agreeing on a maximum amount of compensation of €129.48  per month, tax free. But for everyone else, at this time, your employer is not obliged to grant you compensation. If they wish to do so, they will decide the amount.

Can an employer force a complete return to the office without an option to telework? Unfortunately, according to FPS Employment, "nothing opposes this since 1 July 2021." There is no legal requirement for your employer to accept teleworking. That said, few are reluctant to impose a 100% return. Less than one in 10 companies want to do away with telecommuting, according to a recent survey by SD Worx of 615 business and human resources leaders. It is, of course, possible that your company will be one of those who decide to recall all employees back to the office full time.

Still, most are in favour of working from home; 50% of SMEs surveyed want to allow at least one day of teleworking per week. "The good news is that this increase in flexibility within companies is also in line with what workers expect from their employers in 2021," according to Annelies Rottiers, SME strategic advisor at SD Worx. “On average, one in 10 workers wants to work from home at least once a week. Workers are twice as likely to want to telework several times a week, meaning almost one in five, or 20%, with barely 5% opting for daily teleworking."

So, what can you expect in terms of conditions when and if you return to the office? The coronavirus has not disappeared and is still circulating. Employers are therefore required to ensure distancing and sanitation rules are observed, and the frequency and size of gatherings such as team building exercises and company parties should be limited.

If you are still allowed to telework, be aware that there are rules and regulations concerning where you telework from. It can be tempting to relocate to somewhere exotic for a time, providing your temporary base can provide the same quality of connection necessary for your work to be carried out. But remember that if you decide to telework from anywhere other than your own home, even if it is just the Belgian Coast or in the Ardennes, you will need permission from your employer.

This is mainly due to insurance issues. "As an employed person, you are covered against an accident at work if the accident occurs during and as a result of the performance of your work,” explains Barbara Van Speybroeck, director of communication for Assuralia, the professional union of insurance companies. “This rule also applies to teleworking."

“Normally, you are covered if the accident occurs at the workplaces defined in your contract, such as your home or office and during the period of the working day. Without the agreement of your superiors, in the event of an accident abroad or in another place, you may not be covered.”

If teleworking abroad is carried out in a more structural and long-term way, you should also find out whether your employer will have to pay the taxes and social contributions of the ‘host’ country. "Your employer will have to check if a work or even residence permit is required in the country from which you want to work," according to Assuralia.

Written by Nick Amies