Written by Tiéphaine Thomason
Though questions surrounding the hybridisation of the workplace have grown in importance since the European Union’s (EU) 2002 ‘Framework Agreement on Telework,’ these have taken centre stage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on how to orchestrate successful hybrid working conditions for both employees and employers have grown among policymakers across EU member states and the private sector. Such discussions are, for the most part, two-pronged. First, policymakers have been increasingly concerned with how the ‘remote’ working aspect of hybrid work might affect those workers with caring responsibilities, as well as how to ensure that workers’ rights are preserved even beyond the traditional workplace (European Commission, 2017). Second, there has been a marked interest from the private sector —especially where ‘blue-chip’ companies are concerned— in measuring the productivity and engagement of employees working beyond employer premises (Microsoft, 2022; EY Foundation, 2021).
These discussions have largely failed to consider the difficulties faced specifically by young workers undertaking hybrid work. Namely, though the ‘Framework Agreement on Telework’ and more recent policies by member states —such as Austria, according to Article 1 of the 2021 “Home office” amendment of the Arbeitsvertragsrechts-Anpassungsgesetzes (Employment Contract Law Harmonisation Act)— acknowledge that the ‘home’ is a workplace that can be exploited, there is little discussion on the varying access to stable home environments that young workers face. That is, policies on telework across member states fail to underline the overwhelmingly high rates of housing exclusion for young people across Europe, where 52% of under-30s in major European cities find it hard to find adequate housing (Fondation Abbé Pierre, 2021, p.32), and the effects of this housing exclusion across a mobile workplace. In doing so, discussions fail to consider the sustainability —both in economic and health terms— of this young workforce.
This paper will underline the generational variability of the ‘home’ as a workplace, focusing on how the lack of affordable housing for many young workers in large European cities changes their relationship to an increasingly mobile workplace. It will note the difficulties of variable hybrid working for young workers when this is coupled with lengthy commute times. It will then make several recommendations while highlighting that the key issue to be tackled here reaches beyond mere employment policy into questions of affordable housing policy.
Problem Description and Background
Before discussing the physical space in which young workers spend most of their working day, some definitions must be outlined. Much of recent published research that refers to working virtually has used the language of ‘telework.’ For the purposes of this paper, ‘telework’ is understood along the lines of the EU’s 2002 ‘Framework Agreement on Telework,’ namely ‘a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employer’s premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis’ (European Social Partners, 2002). ‘Hybrid work,’ which this paper centres on, consists of work which can be undertaken in part from employer premises and in part from home or other locations (Eurofound, 2021).
Specifically, this paper centres on the remote portion of hybrid work and largely when this takes place at home. The various advantages and disadvantages that come from working from a ‘home’ environment have been tackled by both the private sector and policymakers. Much of the discussion in the former has stressed that working from home can weaken social networks within companies, claiming that this could lead to lower productivity levels (Deal & Levenson, 2021). The latter have underlined the advantages of flexible working. This is especially the case in the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, which highlighted the importance of flexibility of the place of work in aiding ‘parents and carers’ to remain in the workforce (European Commission, 2017). Naturally, access to affordable ‘home’ environments varies considerably depending on a multitude of additional intersectional factors such as class, ethnicity, and geographic location. However, as this paper will discuss, young workers are a clear, generationally disadvantaged category where ‘home working’ is concerned. Although the causes of this disadvantage remain difficult to tackle directly, their impact on the sustainability of working conditions for new entrants to the workforce mean that they nonetheless need to be explicitly acknowledged by policymakers.
Working from ‘home’: housing exclusion in ‘mobile’ workplaces
When considering workplace rights in the age of hybrid working, policy discussions within EU member states have typically centred on questions of privacy and the ‘right to disconnect’ (Eurofound, 2021). The European Parliament passed a resolution in favour of this right on 21st January 2021, assuring that it will protect ‘those with caring responsibilities’ and recommending this to the European Commission (European Parliament, 2021). Although the Commission has yet to prepare a directive regarding this matter, a number of member states have already expressed an interest in tackling issues related to flexible working through telework, such as the aforementioned right to disconnect. By 2016, France, for instance, had inscribed in its labour law that teleworkers were to be afforded the same rights as their counterparts working on employee premises, including similar working hours (Décret n° 2016-151, 2016). A closer look at policies across EU member states, however, highlights that only a few of these have asked themselves where workers are disconnecting from. Such policies thus fail to tackle how, in light of the increasing mobility of workplaces, teleworkers suffering from housing exclusion might be affected. Even where the ‘home’ is explicitly noted as a workplace in legislation, the high variability in access to suitable and affordable housing is largely unacknowledged. The 2021 Austrian law mentioned in the introduction , for instance, has addressed employer responsibilities towards the ‘home’ as a workplace. Article 1 of that law underlines the voluntary aspect of working from home and imposes restrictions to employers —with regards to the provision of work equipment and maximum working hours to employees— but does not allude to the variability of the ‘home’ environment Young people across Europe are more likely to have to resort to house sharing, whether with strangers, friends or family. If this is not surprising, the extent to which young people have been priced out of major European housing and rental markets in recent years, coupled with the rise of exploitative housing arrangements, ought to be cause for concern for European policymakers dealing with employment.
A quick glance at the 2021 Standard Eurobarometer 95 survey highlights that the group that indicates feeling the most concerned by housing issues is the 15- to 24-year-old group, closely followed by the 25- to 39-year-old group. Namely, 12% of 15-to 24-year-olds and 11% 25-to 39 year-olds picked housing as one of their top two most pressing concerns out of eighteen different categories, ranging from the cost of living to immigration. In contrast, only 5% of 40-55 year-olds, and 3% of 55+ year-olds cited this as a pressing concern (European Commission, 2022, p.27.). This concern for housing is understandable when we turn our attention to where young people in Europe live. In 2019, 80% of 18-24 year olds in Europe relied on the family home as their main housing option (Fondation Abbé-Pierre, 2021, p.32). Although this option can be beneficial to many, a joint report by the Fondation Abbé-Pierre and the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) has noted that many, though especially LGBTQ+ individuals, may have strained relationships with the family home and many may be forced into exploitative house shares to avoid it. This has prompted a rise in illegal living arrangements where, among others, young people are asked to trade sex in exchange for a place to stay (Fondation Abbé-Pierre, 2021, p.51). In 2021, the proportion of young people living in family homes is highest in Italy, at 95%, and lowest in Denmark, at 36% (Fondation Abbé-Pierre, 2021, p.32). Though the possibility of cultural reasons influencing this distribution must be taken into account, the weaknesses of different welfare systems and the high costs of housing independence cannot be ignored (Bertolini & Goglio, 2019).
The joint report by the Fondation Abbé Pierre and FEANTSA on Housing Exclusion in Europe in 2021 samples ten major European cities (London, Lisbon, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Helsinki, Milan, Munich, Brussels and Vienna) to compare average rent for a one bed apartment and monthly median equivalised income for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2019. Across six of these cities (London, Lisbon, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Helsinki), average monthly rent for a one bed apartment was well above the median take-home pay of young people in whichever city was being examined. Across all other cities surveyed in the report, except for Vienna, average rent on a one bed apartment was well above half of the median take-home pay. For instance, median take-home pay in Milan accounted for 91% of the average rent on a one bed apartment (Fondation Abbé Pierre, 2021, p.37). Housing exclusion thus touches most young people in many major European cities. More broadly, countries both within and outside of the EU27, like the United Kingdom, are seeing a marked increase in private housing rental prices. There, the average private rental price grew by 3.4% between August 2021 and August 2022, totaling a rise of 14.7% since January 2015 (Office for National Statistics, 2022). The average young worker in major European cities, therefore, lives in rental poverty.
The resulting implications of house sharing —whether with family or in exploitative house-shares— on young people’s mental health cannot be underestimated. As sociologists underline, nowhere are the impacts of forced cohabitation on struggles to develop senses of ‘self’ more visible than in situations where young people feel forced to return to the family home (Gaviria, 2022). Though still severely under-researched, studies so far have underlined the damaging impact to mental health of house-sharing schemes used by the young, such as multiple occupancy tenancy structures (Barrat, 2015). Even where the newly implemented Austrian ‘Home Office Act’ has attempted to create a better home workspace through, for example, offering tax deductions for ergonomic furniture — as seen in the Article 1 of the 2022 amendment of the Austrian Einkommensteuergesetzes (Income Tax Law)—, such measures fall short of addressing the fundamental lack of economically sustainable living situations for the average young person in major European cities,.
Navigating the ‘hybrid’: commuting and alternative spaces of work
The solution to this growing crisis lies not, however, in mandating that young workers commute to employer premises to escape the home. If in Belgium and Austria older workers face longer commute distances than younger workers, this is not the case in countries such as France and Sweden, where the young have more substantial commutes (Giménez-Nadal, Molina & Velilla, 2022). Recent research has underlined that increased weekly commute hours had a ‘significant and negative effect’ on the ‘overall wellbeing’ of individuals (Zijlstra, Toon & Verhetsel, 2021, p.116). Naturally, the extent of that negative impact varies somewhat across different age groups and gender, as well as mode of transport. Nonetheless, these long commute times were associated with greater levels of fatigue, worsened both physical and mental condition. However, these commute times cannot simply be swallowed by the employer as ‘work time’. A ruling in 2015 by the European Court of Justice found that commuting time for workers should be counted as ‘working time’ only with workers who did not have a ‘fixed or habitual place of work’. In the case on which the ruling was founded, for instance, employees had been travelling up to three hours between their homes and their variable places of work. These fringe cases aside, any proposals to include commute times in ‘work time’ would likely open scope for discrimination and remove opportunities for workers unable to access housing close to employer premises. Extensive commute times, when coupled with difficult renting conditions, are unsustainable for worker well-being.
Even so, the difficulty with hybrid working, however, is not the commute, but the variability of time spent working on employer premises. This variability means that it is seldom an option for young people to move out of cities for those who work in major cities. A key difficulty stems from the lack of clarity between employer and employee at the beginning of employment regarding the extent of telework that the worker will undertake. For instance, the 2021 Austrian ‘home office’ legislation alludes to working remotely through a mutual agreement between employer and employee, with little restrictions on when these agreements might be determined. Many companies have prided themselves on providing ‘flexible’ working arrangements, including working from home, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a bid to help parents and carers. Such flexibility, often the result of a spontaneous agreement between employer and employee, is paramount for those with caring responsibilities, as underlined in the European Commission’s directive on work-life balance (European Commission, 2017). However, such elasticity of arrangements surrounding telework, where agreements are often informally negotiated after the employee has started their position, is not as liberating for young people as it might seem. Young workers, as newer entrants to the workforce, are typically in a more vulnerable negotiating position with their employer due to their inexperience and therefore they might sacrifice certain standards of living due to their poor bargaining position. For instance, a young person might determine that it is worth living on the outskirts of a city and enduring a long commute to employer premises for the sake of two or so days of in-person work. Alternatively, they may deem it necessary to enter an exploitative house share to live closer to employer premises, believing that they will only be allowed to work remotely one day a week. Clarity on when young workers need to be on employer premises is paramount in allowing young people to decide whether, indeed, they can move outside of city confines, into more affordable housing.
This need for ‘predictability’ in working conditions between employer and employee has been underlined in 2019 through an EU directive on ‘transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union’ (European Commission, 2019). Though the directive acknowledged that the employer must indicate the ‘place of work’ to the employee, and that there may not be a ‘main place of work,’ it does not oblige the employer to outline how much time the employee should spend at these places of work (European Commission, 2019). This elasticity, which has been beneficial to those with parental responsibilities, is not as equally beneficial to young workers, who seldom have these duties but face more pronounced difficulties in finding affordable housing.
Beyond these suggestions, the increased valorisation of places other than the ‘home’ for work might offer further solutions. If coworking spaces are largely associated with ‘digital nomads’ or infamous through their association with companies such as WeWork (Platt & Edgecliffe-Johnson, 2020), they do provide an alternative locus of work to the traditional ‘home’ setting (Lee et al., 2019). Temporary solutions to ease pressure off this crisis might involve publicly subsidised coworking spaces or schemes that encourage companies with employer premises in areas of high residential rent relative to junior employee salary to provide access to more commuter-friendly co-working spaces. These solutions would require recognising that sustainable teleworking can exist outside of the ‘home’. The 2021 Austrian ‘home office’ legislation, for example, prioritises the home —and only the home or residential spaces— as a place for telework, allowing for certain tax-deductible perks such as ergonomic furniture. When not provided by the employer, portable equipment that allows for virtual work to be completed in a more mobile setting, outside the home, might also benefit from these perks to encourage sustainable telework outside of residential spaces.
This paper has sought to underline the unique position that young people are in when involved in ‘hybrid working.’ It has noted the lack of access to affordable housing faced by the young, the difficulties they face when forced back into the family home or house shares. Coupled with long commuting times in some countries, this risks leading to increasingly poor levels of well-being among young people and thus, an unsustainable workforce. It has also emphasised the difficulties of hybrid working when its terms are not clearly outlined at the start of the employee-employer relationship, but rather are informally re-negotiated. If this flexibility and spontaneity is beneficial to more senior employees with caring responsibilities, it should not be assumed to be as liberating for the young. Ultimately, the paper has suggested that, in an increasingly mobile workplace, issues of affordable housing need to be recentred where younger members of the workforce are concerned. It is only through acknowledging these difficulties that a truly sustainable mobile workforce can be created.
Policymakers across the EU ought to prioritise measures in which employers must define the extent of hybrid work at the start of an employee’s contract. Crucially, this would allow young people to commute to employer premises on clearly designated days. As a result, the younger workforce would have the scope to move out of prohibitively expensive cities. There is also a pressing need to reconsider the position of workplaces other than the ‘home’ as legitimate sites of telework. In order to do so, the use of these by employers and employees needs to be encouraged. It is also worth noting that the current younger segments of the workforce, who are currently living in undesirable conditions, will require better access to publicly funded mental health support if they are to continue working in cities for prolonged periods of time without burnout. Finally, policymakers must be aware that any discussions that they have on affordable housing are in fact also discussions on the durability of the workforce, and thus ensure that such discussions centre issues of workplace sustainability.