For Global Remote Working to Work, We Have to Talk About Overtime


By Dee Coakley, CEO and Co-Founder of global employment platform Boundless

As we seek to ride out the Omicron storm, the UK is starting 2022 firmly in ‘work at home where possible mode’. 

It seems likely that millions of employees will be experiencing enforced remote working for yet another indefinable, prolonged period – good news for those who never wanted to return to the office in the first place, but a dreadful twist for the many employees’ whose work/life balance fell apart last time we were here. 

Without clearly established boundaries, home-based workers often find themselves pressured into excessive, often unpaid out-of-hours working, responding to messages and carrying out tasks late into the evening, rather than unwinding after a busy day. 

Indeed, given the circumstances, perhaps the UK should be taking its cues from Portugal, where the Government recently made it illegal for employers to contact workers outside of their agreed working hours. 

The decision has sparked much controversy and, without a doubt, it’s one of the more significant and concrete legislative changes to employment law that we’ve seen in years – anywhere. But it’s also a reminder that, as we enter the era of remote-first working long term, it’s high time we had a proper conversation about overtime.

A fragmented picture

France’s ‘right to disconnect’ legislation, which gives employees the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours, came into effect back in 2017. It was the first example of a Government deciding to oppose the propagation of an always-on corporate mentality and culture, and Portugal’s new laws are born of the same spirit.

Of course, there is nothing inherently unethical or undesirable about overtime. Some employees may crave the opportunity to take on additional work. Likewise, certain calendar moments inevitably cause workload spikes – for example, an eCommerce provider preparing for Black Friday or a pharma company gearing up for a regulatory submission.

However, what’s been evident throughout the pandemic is that there is seldom a reliable mechanism for remote workers to time-track how much overtime they’re doing, nor is there any agreed means of compensating them.

The global picture is extremely fragmented. In the UK, employers do not have to pay workers for the extra hours worked, as long as it is made clear in their working agreement. In Brazil, where there are some pay provisions around overtime, these do not extend to home workers. In the Netherlands, the law does not regulate overtime. Employees will not receive overtime compensation if they work without an order from their supervisor, and they have responsibility for recording their own hours.

Contrast these examples with Lithuania, where employees working beyond standard hours are legally entitled to anywhere from 150% to 250% of their regular salary. Employees cannot do more than 12 hours of overtime per seven days, and employers can be fined for failing to keep track of employees’ working time.

Global employers will be required to act first

It’s doubtful that the UK Government will decide to follow in the footsteps of Lithuania. But away from the policymakers, it’s a useful illustration of the growing issues facing global employers if they fail to establish clear, compliant overtime policies for their workers.

Suppose you’re employing remote workers in both Brazil and Lithuania. Can you justify paying Lithuanian team members for overtime – where there’s a legal obligation to do so – without also extending this benefit to your Brazilian staff?

Further, in the age of Slack, WhatsApp, Teams and Trello, conversations across globally dispersed teams are happening 24/7. What happens if a US manager unwittingly tags a Portuguese or French subordinate in a message at the wrong time of day?

Unless everyone understands their employer’s policy around out-of-hours working, breaches could become commonplace – a big problem in territories where there is a legal right to disconnect (and the list is growing). Violations will almost certainly lead to fines because local jurisdictions will want to show that their legislation has teeth. Just as important, employees who feel their rights are ignored are far more likely to jump ship and move elsewhere. 

Putting employees first

Achieving harmonisation around pay, remuneration and benefits for global employees is not easy. Local compliance is non-negotiable wherever a company operates, but beyond this, it might not be viable, or even appropriate, to introduce these policies for everyone, everywhere.

What’s clear though, is that if global remote working is to work equitably, profitably and sustainably in the long-term, employers need to put their employees front of mind in everything they do. You can start by:

  1. Reviewing existing overtime policies
  2. Championing paid overtime only 
  3. Creating more straightforward ways for employees to track and report their time. 

But, most crucially of all, it means breaking with the prevailing corporate philosophy of the past decade, acknowledging how unfit for purpose it has become in our new reality, and respecting employees’ right to sign out of work mode once they’re through their contracted hours.

About the Author

Dee Coakley, CEO and Co-Founder of global employment platform Boundless.


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