In the wave of sunny optimism following the roll-out of our vaccination programme this spring-summer, few people in Belgium had anticipated that the Covid situation would worsen again, or do so as quickly as it has. And yet the numbers of infections and patients in intensive care are now at an all-time high. New stricter measures were to be expected and were duly announced this week.
The Consultative Committee has decided that where it is practicable, working from home will be compulsory four days a week from 20 November until 12 December. After that, at least until 28 January, it will be three days a week. The idea behind the compulsory telework is to reduce the number of contacts, not just in the workplace but also on public transport. To enforce this measure, the government is introducing an electronic register, in which companies have to indicate how many people work at each location and which of them cannot work at home because of the nature of their work or the need to maintain the continuity of the business. There is already a similar mechanism in place to inform the National Social Security Service of which employees are required to come to work and who can WFH. This mechanism will again be used in the upcoming weeks.
The Minister of the Economy warned that companies can be closed down if it is “repeatedly established” that the rules are not being followed, but she reminded listeners that “that is not our intention“. So certainly not any encouragement to bend the rules but seemingly the reassurance of knowing that if a one-off employee is placed the wrong side of that line by innocent error or misunderstanding, the sky will not fall in immediately.
Employers’ organisations have reacted with disappointment to the announcement, as they are of the opinion that the impact on the number of infections will be negligible (a position disputed by virologists). They fear that this teleworking obligation “will result in a Kafkaesque registration system that will contribute nothing to the fight against the pandemic”. It is true that they will need to act swiftly to agree the necessary rotas and shifts and to develop policies for the costs which employees may incur, but hopefully most of the hard work in that respect will have been done during the full lockdown earlier in the pandemic and can now be dusted off and re-used.
In any event, as it appears that mandatory teleworking is here to stay a little while longer, you may be interested to (re)read the Working from Home series we did over the summer, which discusses everything from compensation for WFH expenses to working time for teleworkers.