Five stories that changed the employment landscape in 2021

Posted onDecember 8, 2021byIrina Dzhambazova
Five stories that changed the employment landscape in 2021

The way we work is changing more rapidly than ever. In 2021, we’ve seen a slew of legal- and policy-based action from governments and businesses all over the world designed to reflect the changing nature of work, balance the competing priorities of employees and employers, and clamp down on unlawful or unethical employment practices. It’s been a busy twelve months!

So as 2021 draws to an end, we thought we’d take the opportunity to reflect on the moments that have had the greatest bearing on the global employment landscape and assess what they might mean for employment practices in the year ahead.

1) The UK proposes flexible working from day one

Following a 2019 election pledge to prioritise flexible working, in September, the UK Government announced legislation enabling employees to request the right to work at home from their first day on the job.

While it’s yet to be put before Parliament, the legislation already looks like a trailblazer for future best-practice worldwide. Being able to request home working from the get-go is particularly important to parents and carers, disabled people and individuals with work-limiting health conditions – employees that have historically been disadvantaged by a lack of workplace flexibility. And, right now, every country is looking at every other country for ways to better support the sort of full flexible working that people have come to expect since the pandemic.

When flexibility is aided by progressive legislation, it will greatly impact the wellbeing of the workforce at large, which is why the story remains one to watch as the Government’s bill is debated in the new year.

2) Big Tech remote working policy confusion

Midway through 2020, once it became clear that the pandemic was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, the world’s biggest tech firms led the way in turning temporary home working measures into long-term remote working policies.

In August 2021, however, Big Tech began to change its tune. Google created a handy calculator showing remote workers how much their pay might be cut depending on their choice of location, while chief exec Sundar Pichai eulogised about the joys of seeing workers in the office. Netflix and Apple were quick to echo these sentiments, and within a few short weeks, headlines appeared suggesting that Silicon Valley wanted its in-person workforce back – worrying indeed for the thousands of employees who had already moved out of the Bay Area.

Almost six months on, and it seems as though this story is no closer to a resolution. Some people are back in the office, others are working from home, while long-term office plans do not appear to have been finalised. Big Tech, having guided the way for knowledge workers up to and including the onset of the pandemic, now seems caught between two worlds, and while there’s genuine internal division over what should happen next, many smaller tech companies are unequivocally backing the remote working revolution to try and capitalise on this indecision. 

While Big Tech seems to be caught between the in-office and fully remote worlds, smaller tech companies are unequivocally backing the remote working revolution and capitalise on this indecision.

3) Uber drivers to be treated as workers, not contractors

After a lengthy legal battle, in February 2021, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Uber’s drivers should be treated as ‘workers’, not independent third-party contractors, entitling them to basic employment protections such as minimum wage and holiday pay. Since the historic decision, the movement to reclassify gig economy workers has gained global momentum. The current US administration has made clear that it views these drivers as employees under US Labor Law. A Dutch judge ruled recently that its country’s Uber drivers would need to be paid according to the rules of the collective labour agreement of the taxi industry. Over in Brussels, the European Commission wants rights extended to gig workers “irrespective of the contractual designation” of their relationship with the likes of Uber.

These rulings form part of an ongoing global crackdown on the use of independent full-time contractors, a practice that is, in the majority of countries, at best, unwise, and in many cases, illegal. Yes, it has historically been easier and cheaper to contract individuals rather than set up a local office or entity, but the evidence suggests that governments are increasingly unwilling to tolerate this scenario. Besides, with the Employer of Record model, employers now have a viable alternative that doesn’t create a mountain of administrative complexity.

As these cases continue to grab the headlines, hiring remote workers as full-time independent contractors is increasingly seen as poor employment practice, and it’s only a matter of time before it starts to impact the reputation of companies and their ability to attract talent.

[Update December 9th]: The European Commission has just taken a major step towards requiring ride-hailing and food-delivery services considering their drivers and couriers as employees entitled to a minimum wage and legal protections. This policy is the most far-reaching legislative attempt to regulate these companies to date. If classified as employees, they would also be entitled to holiday pay, unemployment and health benefits and any other legal protections and rights extended in their country of residence. (To see what those are specifically, head over here and view the guide for the country you are interested in.)

4) The rise (and fall) of false ‘work from anywhere’ promises

Over the course of 2021, organisations as diverse as Spotify, Shopify and Siemens attempted to reinforce their credentials as A-list employers by promoting a range of different ‘work from anywhere’ policies to their staff. Some did so quietly, while others such as Ocado Group, made very public announcements. In August, the company claimed that thousands of employees would be allowed to work overseas (for up to 30 calendar days per year).

‘Work from anywhere’ is a logical policy step for any business looking to embrace truly global employment and talent hunting. However, on closer examination, it quickly became apparent that, far from taking location out of the equation, many of these policies were based in Caveat City.

Siemens’ policy came with the caveat that this would be for an average of 2-3 days per week, “whenever reasonable and feasible”. Spotify’s small print stipulated that “we can only support remote working within the region your role is based”. Ocado’s offer of 30 days’ overseas working was markedly different from its recruitment promise that “we offer flexibility on your location”.

Overseas employment is not easy, particularly in countries where an organisation doesn’t already have an operational presence. Hence all of the above caveats.

But as the year has progressed and the global wave of employee resignations and relocations has continued, companies have started to recognise that ‘work from anywhere’ can’t just be offered as a part-time perk. Employees really do want permanent locational flexibility.

In 2022, we’re expecting to see forward-thinking employers go back to the drawing board on ‘work from anywhere’, with more adopting the Employer of Record model to finally come good on their promises.

5) The ‘right to disconnect’ takes a new twist

Finally, in November 2021, the Portuguese Parliament approved new labour laws making it illegal for employers to contact workers outside of their agreed working hours, adding a new dimension to the ‘right to disconnect’ movement that began five years ago in France. Since its introduction there, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Philippines, Argentina, and India have all followed suit, adding their own versions of “right to disconnect”.

Following the onset of the pandemic, more countries have explored to give employees a legal right to switch off work-related messages and devices outside office hours. However, in most cases to date there hasn’t been great clarity as to the consequences for employers who violated that right.

The new measures in Portugal are designed to give remote workers a healthier work-life balance. What’s most interesting about the Portuguese labour laws is the Government’s unapologetic stance that, when it comes to addressing the issue of work-life balance, mandating better employer behaviour is preferable to employee empowerment. Going forward, companies that break the rules – either by continuing out-of-hours contact or by failing to support remote workers more broadly – are likely to face fines. 

Which approach proves more effective in curbing out-of-hours contact remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that, as remote working continues to increase, governments will come under more and more pressure to address this issue and ensure that employees feel like they’re working from home, rather than living at work.

In 2022, we’re expecting to see forward-thinking employers go back to the drawing board on ‘work from anywhere’, and figure out how to fulfil their promises.

Employ internationally with confidence

At Boundless, helping companies comply with local employment laws, extend full employment rights and benefits, and meet employees’ changing priorities of where they want to live, is what we do for a living.

While 2022 will inevitably bring a raft of further changes to the employment landscape, using an Employer of Record like Boundless for your global employment needs can save you time and stress in the short-term, and give you long-term peace of mind that, wherever you operate, you’ll be a best-practice employer.

If you're ready to hire overseas and avoid running into any of these international employment issues directly, get started here.

5 stories that changed the employment landscape in 2021: The UK proposes flexible working from day one Big Tech remote working policy confusion Uber drivers to be treated as workers, not contractors The rise (and fall) of false ‘work from anywhere’ The ‘right to disconnect’ takes a new twist
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Written by Irina Dzhambazova

Irina Dzhambazova is the editor of this publication and leads many of the marketing efforts behind Boundless. Previously she crafted stories at SaaStock and Dublin Globe and travelled the world capturing case studies of companies using the Kanban Method. Throughout this experience, she was almost always "the remote worker" and knows a thing or two about the potential and challenges of this way of working.

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