For all its tragedy, the Covid crisis has created some interesting opportunities. One of them is a large scale trial of remote working. We have proven that it works, and it can be done.
I believe that places such as the European Union should now enshrine this into law as the Right to Remote for every citizen, regardless of where they live and work.
The proposed Right to Remote will let every employee who can reasonably do their job remotely (every office worker) choose to do their job from anywhere in the EU. It offers many benefits to the economy, the health of our democracy, equality, social mobility, and the planet as a whole.
In this article I present, and advocate for the Right to Remote, how it could be applied, regulated, and what benefits it brings to the EU.
While this article is written towards the EU, it should still be applicable for other countries.
Disclaimer: I am an EU citizen, and I live in London, UK. I'm one of the 3 million people, who moved here when it was still firmly (and proudly) one of EU capital cities.
While the UK and London unfortunately aren't in the EU anymore, in my mind and heart I still consider London as an European city, as it was when I moved here several years ago.
Some examples in this article will mention London in that context, so understand where I'm coming from.
Why focus on the EU specifically?
First of all, it applies to me personally. I'm a EU citizen who benefited by the four freedoms, and I'm proud to be one.
I also know Europe best. It's home, and I understand my fellow Europeans more than I can ever hope to understand Americans, Bolivians, Chinese, or any other nations.
Finally, I think that something like Right to Remote can be implemented here, should be implemented here, and must be implemented here - for the Union to continue and to thrive.
Today, 9 May 2020 is also Europe Day, and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration that marked the beginning of the integration process that we now know and love as the EU. We have many problems, but we have proven that we're at our best when solving them by integrating.
The EU is in trouble
EU is in peril, facing the greatest recession (if not depression) it has ever faced. I think the post-Covid era will be harder than post World War 2 - for one, we don't have a big America-shaped buddy with loads of cash on hand ready to help us get back on our feet.
There are however futher challenges that EU is facing beyond Covid, and these are rooted both in our politics, as well as our economy.
The EU is terrible at PR. We're just not united enough for a common identity to be strong enough to matter to most. This makes us prone to propaganda coming from all sides, both externally and internally.
We didn't help Italy fast enough, and then China jumped in. Although EU donations have been much more prominent than China's, it's China who's in the news as their lord and saviour. Great PR on their side, and a massive failure on ours.
There are more fundamental problems the EU faces, such as the discrepancy between "winner" countries and "loser" countries. Winner countries benefit the most from the integration, tend to have well balanced budgets, and are desirable targets for educated migration. Loser countries don't benefit as much. They face brain drain, aging population, as well as running high deficits.
Besides the winner and loser countries, there's even starker divide between cities and surrounding countryside.
The cities tend to be more developed than the rural areas, running a higher surplus, and sheltering a "metropolitan elite", yet they are also facing much greater levels of inequality, high costs of living, pollution, and overcrowding.
The rural areas have a lower cost of living, but also less opportunities for career progression. This regional divide has helped foster the rise of populist movements, and a "us vs them" mentality in many European nations and the world.
Economically, some countries are heavily reliant on tourism. When thats decreases for whatever reason, they are in deep trouble. Some other countries lean on their manufacturing muscle. Even Germany, our economic engine, faces great challenges. German economy runs on internal combustion, yet as we as a society try to move away from burning dinosaur bones in order to hit our climate targets (so we still have a planet to live on a hundred or so years from now), that industry is leading the world at producing pretty much obsolete technologies. Not enviable.
Combine these economic troubles and internal divisions with the bad PR, and we have even more dissatisfaction everywhere.
Why the EU is great
For all its shortcomings, the EU has many things going for it; The EU started in the mid 20th century as a project to bring its long time enemies together and stabilise a continent otherwise known for its discord. It has, in many ways, achieved this. Where once were borders with walls and barbed wire, there now exist bridges and welcome signs.
The EU as a whole has also been one of the rare beacons of democracy and global progressivism. This is especially true during the last few years and decades, where many of the world's nations have sunk deeper into authoritarianism. We are a family of countries with the strongest social and worker's rights regulations on the planet. We are most committed to clean energy and conservation. With GDPR, we also have the strongest privacy regulations.
EU is indeed the world's regulation powerhouse. Through our trading deals, we are also able to export some of that regulations to other parts of the world, be it animal welfare standards that regulate our food production, or consumer and privacy protection laws that prevent fraud. The process to pass any regulation on an European level is meticulous and relies on consensus building. While lengthy, and by some perceived as overly bureaucratic, it is designed to leave no stone unturned, and no voice unheard.
Our present remote reality
There is no way to say this nicely - Europe, and the world in 2020 is a terrifying place. Between the UK, Italy, and Spain we've nearing a hundred thousands dead. By the time you read this it'll likely be way over that.
In addition to all the dead, unforeseen numbers of people have lost jobs and their livelihoods - either as a direct result of COVID-19 related lockdowns or companies downsizing due to a lack of demand or rightfully predicted global recession that the world is rushing into. The "outside and leisure" economy has stopped - bars, restaurants across Europe and the world have largely gone deserted, tourism doesn't even exist anymore - all due to a pandemic of COVID-19 that's currently ravaging through the land. With the exception of a handful of people deemed key workers, best we can do is stay at home as much as possible.
Yet, there's another exception - for us lucky enough to be office workers who kept our jobs, our work hasn't stopped for the most part. We switched whole industries to online-only, not just online-first. All meetings, all communication went from 'get people into a room' to 'get people into a Zoom room', seemingly overnight. My own industry - developer relations, used to rely heavily on live in-person events, and yet has managed to switch our focus to online, become leaner, and even more inclusive in the process.
Where in the past IT teams have blocked work outside of office for security reasons, these same teams have now revised their policies, rolled out VPNs and trainings, and enabled us to all work from home. Even things that were unheard of, such as parliamentary and cabinet sessions have made the shift to remote. What's even more remarkable, all of this seemingly happened overnight.
Work continues, and industries have undergone a digital transformation in days where before they had botched it for years. This shows what is possible to achieve, when there's a will, and an urgency. As a whole, we have proven that such a switch is possible, on a global scale. That's a great, irrefutable data point.
Now, imagine what we could achieve, if we continued that in "normal" times? How we act now will influence our readiness to combat the next. The climate crisis didn't go away. Our unemployment is even higher, democracy is eroding, and Europe still lags behind in the sheer health of our economy.
The proposed Right To Remote
I propose a new European regulation that would allow any "on-site office" worker to choose to work from anywhere within the EU. I call it the Right to Remote.
It would on one hand eliminate location from the equation, bringing benefits to both employees and employers, further increasing a pool of available talent for businesses, reducing their office costs, and at the same time bring greater flexibility to workers across the EU.
Embracing this new reality is the best thing Europe can do to ensure our own economic prosperity, our citizens, and the planet.
Let's break down the specifics:
Who can chose to work remotely?
By "on-site office worker" I mean anyone whose job can be reasonably conducted in a distributed manner.
That's last part is the caveat. Remote work cannot be (and isn't) applicable to every job. In fields such as healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, construction, retail, hospitality, and many others it is still required for many jobs to be done on-site. However, things like technology, administration, accounting, and many services jobs can be done remotely, as we have proven in the last months.
Who pays (and collects) the taxes?
Right now, employees pay income taxes in the country they live. This should continue. If you live in Croatia working for a Czech company, your income taxes should go to Croatia. We already have this system in place for people who currently work remotely, either as sole proprietors, via umbrella companies, or similar. They pay the taxes where they live, and as they live where they work - that's a rather easy calculation.
How would employees opt-in?
This should be a right of each employee to choose whether to work in a provided office, or not. Companies couldn't enforce office work anymore, as they aren't able to now. The choice should be presented at the offer of employment, and the offered remuneration shouldn't differ.
For example, if a Munich-based company hires a worker who lives in Munich, they would of course still be welcomed use the office as a working environment, but if that same company hires a worker from Madeira, Malmo, or Maribor, they cannot force that employee to relocate to Munich (they can of course opt to relocate, exercising our right of EU citizenship).
Can employees work remotely one day and in the office the next day?
No. Right To Remote doesn't mean that employees can be remote one day and in the office the next day (unless their contract explicitly says so).
Once an employee has chosen their preferred way of working (from an office or remotely), that becomes part of their contract, and should let companies plan resources accordingly. In case their life situation changes, they should be able to change that (office to remote, or remote to office).
A similar situation arises if an employee decided to move between countries. Due to differing tax and national insurance regulations across countries, each move will likely still go through HR and accounting processes (yet will likely become much more streamlined).
Is this a quick change?
No. This is a transition that will take years to implement. First, this proposal needs to be considered by the EU to even debate it, then go through all the usual steps required to pass any EU-wide legislation.
Likely will be first implemented on a country by country basis, before being followed by a true international approach, and done so with a generous implementation period. 10 years is a more likely timeframe.
Is Right To Remote a ban on offices?
No. It's just a choice given to employees. I see it as a convenient way to reduce operating expenses of businesses across the EU, while expanding their talent pool to the entirety of the EU. Offices can still be offered as perks, and local teams can still choose to work from offices if they desire to stay together.
Reasons and benefits of Right to Remote
I see many reasons for implementing Right to Remote, covering all aspects of our society - from benefits that impact us as citizens of Earth, to benefits to individual countries, and cities - large and small. There are also several good benefits for global cities that currently draw all the jobs, and the businesses that create all of them.
There are four main categories, and I'll go into detail for each of them:
- It's our best chance to reduce our climate footprint
- Higher equality across the continent
- Bridging the regional divide
- Advantages to business and competitiveness
1. It's out best bet for reaching of our climate targets
Europe is trying hard to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world. It's an incredibly ambitious target for sustainable economy, and requires us to entirely decouple our economic growth from resource usage. Europe is already leading the green revolution, but we can, and should, do much more.
The COVID lockdowns have proven that as people commute less there is an immediate and substantial reduction in greenhouse gasses and pollution we produce. The Right To Remote is a great way to continue on that trend. Without it, we'll be back to "normal" as soon as the continent is out of the lockdown, and people travel en-masse to work again.
There are further benefits beyond the climate
Climate benefits brought by Right to Remote will have the greatest impact on the planet, so they deserves to be put first, yet reduction in carbon output and pollution that comes along with it has many other beneficial factors. Our cities will be cleaner, and population will be healthier - both phisically and mentally.
Right now, our cities are massive population magnets, as most people shift in and out of them on a daily basis. All this traffic results in heavy pollution. Areas of London usually reach the allowed pollution tresholds in the first week of the year! With the Right to Remote millions of workers could opt out of daily travel to some of the most polluted areas of the continent, making them healthier, and in turn reducing the strain on our health systems. We could reclaim hundreds of millions of hours from commuters across the EU each month, increasing potential productivity and creativity on a truly continental scale.
Finally, our cities would become more resident-friendly. I think we can all agree the the most pleasant parts of our global cities aren't the American style CBDs. If anything, these centres are deserted during weekends - a terrible waste of space and expensive real estate. Wouldn't it be nicer to instead prioritise more affordable residential space, walkable new high streets and parks, and community centres instead of CBDs? Moreover, this shift is already happening - Barclays bank's bosses already predict a shift away from office towers, and I believe many more will follow.
2. Higher equality across the continent
Right now, our largest cities (and metropolitan areas) have an increasing advantage over the rest of our countries. They offer more jobs, more people, more money, more economy. Because of all that, they tend to draw even more people towards them, in turn concentrating even more jobs, more people, more tax money, accellerating these differences in a perpetual cycle. At the same time, the rest of Europe is falling behind. Towns and even smaller cities have little to no chance of competing with our top cities (capitals, more often than not). The same goes for countries to the south and to the east.
I myself am a good example of that cycle. I'd left my home town and country behind, drawn to the more cosmopolitan life in a global metropolis. Admittedly, not just because a much better financial situation I'm in now, but also because of access to the world's greatest museums and transport connections.
Better income and wealth distribution on all levels
Right to Remote would take some of the pure economic factor out of the equation, and let us put a pause to that cycle, by giving smaller cities and regions a fighting chance. While many struggling cities and countries still wouldn't be able to compete with largest cities in culture and amenities, they could compete on living standards, food, weather, and smaller crowds - the quality of life stuff.
As high earning jobs get distributed more evenly, so will the corresponding taxation income, and spending power. Countries in the European south, most heavily dependant on tourism, could now expect to gather some extra tax money from their residents' income taxes - who work in the services sector. Conservative minded readers might find it compelling that this would require no particular handouts, just their warm weather, good food, great vibes and working environment.
Larger cities on the other hand might see a dip in their taxation incomes, but these will be countered by reduced spending on transportation, utilities, healthcare, and social services required by fewer people and due to reduced pollution.
Reduced and reversed effects of brain drain
Another common result of good education and struggling local economy is brain drain. Students get educated in their home countries, and then move away for better opportunities.
With Right to Remote, fewer people will leave their home countries because pay is better in Germany, the Netherlands, or Ireland. If you're Italian, Latvian, or Slovenian like myself, who studied for free, only to pack my bags and move out you know what I mean.
3. Bridging the regional divide
With accellerating economic and social differences resulting of people moving to large cities in prosperous countries, there's another massive problem occuring. Look at a recent election results and think about what you see? Largest cities tend to lean progressive, whereas the countryside tends to be less so - even bringing up the rethoric from the 1930s and 1940s, the worst times in European history.
Less us vs them politics
This divide is accellerating, seemingly even more rapidly than the economic divide mentioned in the previous section. Our discourse is becoming more and more populist, and geared towards a "Us vs Them" mentality. I am frankly scared of this division. Coming from the Balkans, I was born in what was then still Yugoslavia, and grew up up in the aftermath of a violent breakup of that union. Croatian and Bosnian wars, the siege of Sarajevo, and Srebrenica genocide were all happening a few hundred kilometres away from home, and were commonplace in the news.
I am publishing this article on 9 May 2020, Europe Day and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration that gave this union a start. A day before we celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE day, and the end of World War 2 in Europe. The timing of this blog post is not a coincidence.
The way Right to Remote would stem this divide is by letting more progressive folks who are currently city dwellers move out, which could help bridge that divide. It would shift the electoral bases enough to matter, and bring us to a more civilised, centrist discourse. The same goes for the increasing Chinese and Russian influence and propaganda which tends to find fertile ground outside of large cities and "western" countries. We could, and should stem this by forcing open our sociogeographical echo chambers.
Increased mobility through freedom of choice
Freedom of movement is one of the fundamental rights that EU citizens enjoy. I can recall first hand how it has literally brought down borders with the Schengen agreement. Yet, it's a double edged sword. I don't think that people right now can really move unless they have the means to do so. As usual, it boils down to the basic economics.With right to remote, people will be able to move even more freely, and live wherever they please. You like German system of universal childcare better than the one in the Netherlands? Good, move there. Need to move back to your hometown care for the elderly relatives? Great, your job will let you do this.
Or consider the great programmes such as Erasmus, that have enabled students across the continent to study and live in a new city and country, increasing their exposure to other european cultures, and improving the sense of European citizenship and belonging. Ask any Erasmus student about their experience and they will pretty much all tell you how great and valuable it has proven for them. Right to Remote would offer more of the same, and expand it to everyone, not just to students.
4. Advantages to business and increased competitiveness
Finally, let's talk about the impact of Right to Remote on our European economy. Besides the potential direct savings in office space and any travel benefits offered by companies, I believe Right to Remote will have a positive impact on European competitiveness.
Take technology. While our industrial sector is decently developed, we currently can't compete well with large US technology companies. With more and more of us moving our lives almost exclusively online this shows our reliance on the US companies even more. This shouldn't be the case.
Pan-European talent pool
Right to Remote would make it even easier for companies to hire from anywhere in the Union. No more location specifics, no more expensive office clusters, just direct access to the best talent in Europe, bringing to fruition the REAL single labour market.
With Right to remote companies would be forced to innovate more, as they adapt to the new remote reality. The global shift to remote work is happening already (right now, it's more of a temporary trial), but we could be ready for when this goes global, and lead.
The need (and opportunity) to develop world-leading technology
Often the greatest inventions arise from the greatest need to solve a problem. Right to Remote would force on us a new big problem - collaborating effectively across distances, on a continental scale.
Of course, there are already the Zooms and Slacks and Microsoft Teams of the world, but honestly - who likes these? They're passable at best, and horrible at their worst. As European companies are forced to make Remote work, there will be new companies and tools popping up, made by European entrepreneurs, who will solve that problem - and ready to export this technology when the rest of the world catches up.
In addition to that, we'll have to ensure that the infrastructure is in place for Right to Remote to truly be possible (and effective) across Europe. This will require both public and private invesment in more fibre lines everywhere, as well as high speed mobile network connectivity.Infrastructure investment is often a pre-requisite for rapid economic development, which will put us in an even better position for the next 30 years as technology progresses.
Requirements, challenges, and drawbacks
Of course, implementing a change as profound as Right to Remote will not come without its challenges. Compared to Right to Remote, GDPR is a minor regulatory hurdle.
Avoiding an accounting nightmare
A concern I saw on Twitter from a small business owner was due to the excessive regulations and processes of salary payments across the 27 countries of the EU. That can be seen as a considerable challenge, yet we've solved similar problems already.
A few years ago, a law came into effect that required any product sold online to be charged VAT to the buyer's country. 27 different tax agencies, with almost as many taxation levels. Yet, the businesses adapted. Most platforms that let you sell across the EU now charge the right tax automatically, with almost no extra work for the business.
I can see the labour laws and taxation around Right to Remote solved in a similar way. All we need is some good accounting software that will solve for it, and we're good to go. Looking at my previous point to business benefits - this could be an opportunity for European companies to start rivaling Intuit or Xero.
Loss of jobs due to fewer people in cities
A friend of mine argued on LinkedIn that a full on switch to remote work would be catastrophic for businesses in the service sector. Not merely the hospitality sector that services our cities, but also the industires servicing our offices.
First off, the offices won't vanish. Making this change will realistically take years, possibly even a decade. That's plenty of time for businesses and individuals to adapt. Secondly, local businesses will thrive even more. While the largest cities might contract a bit, many smaller places will gain their workers and shoppers. As people spend less time commuting back and forth to work, and spending that time (and money) on leisure activities closer to home.
Infrastructure investment not equal across the board
Right to Remote will increase equality, yet it also requires equality. We need equal opportunities to partake in remote life in Europe - whether you're in Stockholm, Siena, or Sevnica.
I argued earlier that we will need to invest a lot in infrastructure required by Right to Remote. We are already investing in fibre connectivity in rural areas, but we'll need much, much, more. I can see a lot of these funds coming from centralized, EU-wide sources - either funding nationwide projects, private concessions, or a mix of both. What we need are clear targets, and a plan to achieve it.
What about Remote Worker's rights?
EU wouldn't be EU without our high standards of welfare, including labour rights. They tend to be better on average than any other place on the planet, and Right to Remote needs to ensure that. Our rights aren't equal however. In fact, they aren't even close to being similar. A questions presents itself in whose rights apply where?
It would make sense for the employer to make everyone align to the country where the business is registered - in terms of holiday, sick pay, etc... On the other hand, as employees pay income tax and social benefits in the countries where they live, it would only be fair to receive the social benefits in accordance to local standards. This is the one question I'm not sure how to answer. Personally I'm leaning towards the latter options - apply the laws of the state where the employee currently resides, as it's currently the practice with companies that have branches in several EU countries.
To conclude, a global move to remote work is happening. With Covid we have been forced to try it out, and prove it's possible for all office-based work.
Today the European Union has a choice of either leading or lagging in this movement, by enshrining the Right to Remote work into law for every citizen, to work for any EU-based company, from anywhere in the EU.
Leading this charge will present us with many new challenges, but ultimately position us, the bloc, continent, and the world, much better for the future. It will allow us to help our people, our planet, and the profits of our businesses for many future decades.
Thank you for reading, and Happy Europe Day!