Telework in Belgium
Since the implementation of the national collective agreement on telework in July 2006, teleworking has become the subject of increasing interest. In particular, researchers have been examining the positive and negative impacts of the telework agreement, as well as the growing potential for employers to offer this type of work in their own company. In addition, the improved access to information and communication technologies in recent years facilitates the development of telework in the immediate future.
The provisions of the national collective agreement on telework, signed in 2005 (BE0512301N), became compulsory through the Royal Decree of 13 June 2006. These provisions took effect from 1 July 2006 and were subsequently extended to civil servants in November 2006.
The collective agreement defines the status of teleworkers and determines their working conditions. In doing so, it complements the 1996 Homeworkers Act, which aimed to cover all types of work at home; this includes those workers who are not specifically using information and communication technologies (ICT) to do their work, such as qualified nurses providing home care services.
As these regulations were only implemented 16 months ago, the time frame is too short to examine their impact on the labour force.
Prevalence of telework
Several surveys on telework had been carried out before the national collective agreement was implemented. In addition to collecting information on the number of teleworkers in Belgium, these surveys aimed to examine the impact of telework on working conditions and work relationships between employees and their employers. The surveys also looked at new ways to deal with human resources management.
Factual data on the number of teleworkers in Belgium tend to differ from one survey to another, depending on the methodological framework of the survey and the definition of telework: figures on the number of teleworkers generally range from 7% to 10.6%. Most of the companies that offer telework employ more than 49 workers (45%) and are part of the not-for-profit – or so-called third – sector (46%). Some 53% of companies offering telework arrangements are located in Brussels and 42% in Flanders, according to a 2003 study by the Higher Institute of Labour Studies (HIVA) of the Catholic University of Leuven (Université catholique de Louvain, UCL) and the Free University of Brussels (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB).
Characteristics of teleworkers
Most teleworkers are men with a high educational qualification, who work in the ICT sector and occupy a management function. The majority of teleworkers live in urban areas and are not willing to lose time commuting. Women are underrepresented among teleworkers as fewer women work in ICT (Taskin and Vendramin, 2004).
Most of the studies revealed that informal telework was a common practice among companies. According to a survey carried out among internet users in Flanders (Walrave and de Bie, 2005), in 78.3% of cases surveyed such informal telework arrangements resulted from a tacit agreement between the employee and employer. In these cases, no clearly defined arrangement exists in the employment contract.
Nonetheless, in line with the provisions of the 2005 national collective agreement, the employer has to pay for a computer and an internet connection in order to facilitate the possibility to work from home. According to the 2005 survey by Walrave and de Bie, the majority of employers effectively paid for the computer while only 37.6% of employers covered internet fees. Whether or not the employer bears the costs for ICT equipment needed by the teleworker seems to depend on the size of the company: organisations with more than 250 employees tend to pay more often for ICT equipment than companies with less than 250 employees.
Provisions for the training of teleworkers do not seem to be well developed as of yet: only 33% of teleworkers received training before starting working away from the employer’s premises, while 36% have taken part in training since they started teleworking. Once again, the size of the company is an important criterion in relation to the offer of training possibilities for teleworkers.
At the moment, telework seems to be progressing slowly in Belgium, showing a higher rate of development in Brussels and Flanders. However, it can be assumed that infrastructural conditions will facilitate the development of this type of work organisation in the years to come. A study entitled Telework in Belgium (Walrave, 2005) shows that broadband penetration is high in Belgium, at 14% – the equivalent of twice the European average, at 7.6% in the EU15 and 6.5% in the EU25. Moreover, it appears that four out of 10 companies are interested in investing in telework, while 73% of workers would be interested in this type of work if proposed by their employer (Insites, 2004). Nevertheless, workers and managers without any telework experience still have a considerable number of questions and doubts about this type of work.
Taskin, L. and Vendramin, P., Le télétravail, une vague silencieuse, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2004.
Vandenbrande, T. et al, HIVA Leuven and ULB, Uitgevoerd op afstand. Onderzoek naar de verspreiding, voorwaarden en implicaties van telework (1.3Mb PDF), Leuven, Catholic University of Leuven, 2003.
Walrave, M. and de Bie, M., Teleworking @ home or close to home. Attitudes towards and experiences with teleworking, University of Antwerp, 2005.
Walrave, M., Telework in Belgium: Sharing experiences and lowering thresholds, Brussels, European Social Fund Flanders, 2005.
Emmanuelle Perin, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Catholic University of Leuven