Professor Ton Wilthagen: ‘Working from home law leads to conflicts’

The Senate decided on Tuesday on the Work Where You Want initiative law. If this is adopted, employees can demand that their employers allow them to work (partly) from home, unless there is a good reason why this is not possible. The proposal was adopted in the House of Representatives with a resounding majority of 125 seats. It is expected that the Senate will also agree, but the result was not yet known late Tuesday evening.

Last year, the Dutch worked from home on average about 41 percent of the time, in 2021 that was 48 percent. According to Ton Wilthagen, professor of institutional-legal aspects of the labor market at Tilburg University, the law mainly establishes an existing standard that employees and employers already apply. The need among employees to work from home is great, and according to VNO-NCW, “hybrid working has proven to be workable for both employers and employees in broad parts of the business community since corona.” However, according to Wilthagen, the law will certainly lead to labor conflicts. For many people, working from home is impossible (such as for crane operators) or not a problem at all (such as for academics), but in borderline cases employers and employees are pitted against each other.

‘Reasonableness and fairness’

That has everything to do with the text of the law. It states that a request to work from home must fall within the limits of “reasonableness and fairness”. That terminology, taken directly from an advice from the Social-Economic Council, is a compromise between VNO-NCW and the trade unions. Previously it was written that requests could be rejected if they conflict with “important service or business interests”, but VNO-NCW managed to water down that text. But “reasonableness and fairness” is open to debate, says Wilthagen: “The judge will have to rule on that, so that we find out what falls within those parameters.” Outside of those borderline cases, Wilthagen does not expect the law to cause major problems. “In fact, the tightness on the labor market has a much stronger effect than this law. If an employee is not allowed to work from home, he has a strong negotiating position. If the employer does not agree, the employee can easily switch to another company.”

According to FNV director Kitty Jong, the ‘white collars’ (higher educated and better-earning employees) in particular have such a strong position, and it is important that no one is “dependent on the kindness of the employer” when it comes to working from home. “During the corona crisis, it has become apparent that working from home is accessible to large groups of employees for whom this was previously unthinkable. Secretaries, for example, or nurses when they perform administrative tasks.” According to Jong, they currently benefit less from the opportunities to work from home, because their employers see less need to facilitate this. Employers are obliged to facilitate the safety, health, comfort and functioning of employees, whether they work in the office or not. The costs can increase considerably if more people have the right to work from home. Wilthagen: “An employer cannot let an employee work on a kitchen chair.”

But is normalizing working from home really so desirable? Research shows that working from home does not reduce an employee’s productivity, and often even increases it. Wilthagen: “On the other hand, we know that people make concessions in social areas. There is a chance of loneliness, and companies themselves do not want their workforce to become loose sand.” Then creativity is lost within companies, says Wilthagen: “Innovation often takes place through chance encounters, and these decrease due to hybrid working.”

There are also concerns about the personal development of employees who rarely show up in the workplace. Kitty Jong of FNV waves this away: “You should not assume that employers monitor the personal development of their staff all day long, employees can do that better themselves. After all, they are generally very sensible people.”