The Great (Global)

During the pandemic, we saw many companies, especially in software, quickly pivot to remote work to keep their businesses going. While at first, they worried that growth would slow down, the opposite actually happened for many tech companies, who saw their growth soar to record highs. They snapped up tech talent as fast as they could to keep up with the new, faster pace. But as a result, tech workers could suddenly be more demanding and had the upper hand. In 2021, we saw the Great Resignation, in which more than 47 million Americans quit their job, and nearly half of employed workers identified themselves as “job seekers.”

But as the pandemic began to wind down, many tech companies began to insist employees return to the offices, if only to make use of the facilities they were paying for. Some employees had no choice, while others decided to switch to companies that had more progressive remote and hybrid work policies.

Simultaneous to this rebalancing of remote and in-office work policies, many tech companies simply couldn’t keep up the growth levels investors came to expect of them. Layoffs became commonplace, with approximately 150,000 tech workers laid off in 2022, with the trend continuing into 2023. As of mid-April, more than 168,000 layoffs have taken place, and the year is far from over.

In the midst of so much change, the dynamic between employers and employees is changing rapidly. The two sides will need to come to an agreement on work-life balance, a phenomenon widely discussed right now and popularly known as the “Great Renegotiation.”

The idea is that no one really knows where things will land, but things are certainly changing. Globally, only 16% of companies are fully remote, according to a study from Owl Labs in 2022. The same study found that 62% of workers aged 22 to 65 work remotely at least from time to time and that 44% of companies do not allow remote work whatsoever.

American employees in particular have started to reach a breaking point. The average American works 47 hours per week, with nearly 40% of individuals surpassing 60 hours weekly. It’s widely known that American workers rarely use their sick days, tend to skip their lunch breaks, work extra hours without pay, and fail to even take the limited vacation days they’re granted. Not to mention that the United States is one of the only countries in the world without mandated paid parental leave.

In most European countries, these practices seem archaic at best and inhumane at worst. But along with the pandemic and the increase of “digital nomads,” remote work, and more and more companies allowing a “work from anywhere” policy that extends across the globe, both workers and the companies that employ them are starting to wake up to the fact that different countries not only have different views of work within one’s life, but they actually have very different labor laws.

As this great renegotiation takes place in the United States, much of the “rebalancing” in Europe has already occurred. Different countries are taking stances, more and more, to provide better work-life balance for employees and to ensure they have better support:

  • France: A leader in protecting workers’ rights, since January 2017, France has legally required employers to negotiate agreements with unions for a right to disconnect from technology after working hours.
  • Italy: The next country to introduce a right to disconnect was Italy in 2017. The country’s legislation stated that only remote workers have the right to disconnect from their devices without suffering employment consequences.
  • Spain: Following suit in 2018, Spain introduced additional legislation to cover the right to disconnect accompanied by a new set of digital rights for workers in both private and public sectors.
  • Belgium: In 2018, Belgium introduced similar legislation, requiring employers with more than 50 employees to discuss the right to disconnect. In 2022, they passed a law to protect workers in the public sector and have plans to extend the laws to the private sector.
  • Ireland: The Irish government announced a new code of practice guaranteeing employees the right to disconnect in April 2021, also stating that employees should not have to routinely work outside of their normal working hours.
  • Portugal: In 2021, Portugal introduced new legislation on remote work, including the right to privacy. As of January 2022, the Labour Code now stipulates that employers cannot contact employees during their rest periods or may face fines.

Most American tech companies employ workers in European countries once they reach a certain level of global reach. What will the impact of this be on the workers in the US, and globally? Can they help the Great Renegotiation along?

The fact that legislation has emerged relatively rapidly in European countries with interlinked economies is promising, but it’s difficult to say what the ripple effects will be on the rest of the world, but in general, legislation and labor laws do tend to impact more than just one part of the world as they evolve. There are many proponents of international labor standards that would provide minimum standards for things like worker safety and pay, but even these have yet to be adopted on a global scale.

While it’s difficult to predict how quickly change will happen, the basic pattern is clear. The pandemic led to increased digitization, along with a huge rise in remote work, and with it, in many cases, geo-agnostic work. As many tech companies grew at a record pace during the pandemic, they didn’t just grow in one economy, but globally. This has led to companies hiring in more places than ever before, which has raised awareness of differences in employment laws and workers’ rights. Meanwhile, employees are becoming more aware than ever before of what is possible for them to obtain in terms of work-life balance.

The ultimate goal of technology advances is to reduce the need for human toil and labor so we can work smarter, not harder. Now that the “forced acceleration” of digitization thanks to the pandemic has fueled greater growth in the technology sector, globalization has increased too. And with that increase in globalization of technology and accompanying workforces, efforts to protect workers’ rights in the digital age are increasing, too.

What all this means to me, although it’s admittedly an optimistic take, is that further advances in technology and digitization will eventually enable even greater globalization, and along with it, ideally better equity in the world. While it won’t be a quick or easy process, the Great Renegotiation is unfolding before us, and the best part about it is that while the resulting labor laws to protect work-life balance are only multinational for now, they hold the potential to eventually have a significant worldwide impact.

To me, what this all means is that the more we can do to drive better and faster globalization of tech products, the companies that create those products will have an enhanced and more global, and remote-friendly viewpoint as a result. If we can achieve that, we’ll help to boost awareness of the potential for giving people back more quality time to do work while still living their lives in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling. And that’s really what the Great (Global) Renegotiation is ultimately all about.

Nataly Kelly  is vice president of localization at HubSpot. Her latest book is “Take Your Company Global” (Berrett-Koehler).



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