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Rules and cost of home office work still being debated

Home office work comes with new burdens as well as freedoms. Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

As of this week, home office is again recommended wherever possible by the Swiss government. But the legal and practical realities of teleworking are not so clear.

This content was published on October 23, 2020 - 11:00

Home office has become a global catchphrase since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Switzerland, according to the Federal Statistical Office, the number of employees working from home has doubled from 25% to 50%.

An analysis by the IFO economic institute in Munich has shown that home office is an effective measure against the virus: comparing teleworking statistics against infection rates, it found that German regions better able to implement teleworking saw a slower spread of Covid-19.

But once the virus disappears, will the home office phenomenon follow suit? Not at all, says the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO), which believes that the current experience with teleworking will have a long-term effect on how and where we work.

The ILO’s findings are echoed by other surveys, including social networking platform Xing that reported 85% of personnel managers saying that the home office option would continue after Covid-19 subsides.

Legal grounds

Such a perspective raises practical and legal questions. Is there a legal right to home office? Can an employer force his or her employees to work from home? What about the status of taking breaks while teleworking?

According to the Swiss Employer’s Association, which has published a guide to clarify the situation, there is no right to home office in Switzerland. This means that an employee who decides to work from home without their employer’s permission runs the risk of sanctions. Even during the height of the pandemic, workers belonging to the most vulnerable groups could theoretically have been obliged to turn up at their place of work.

However, employers are also bound by law to protect the health of their workers: and if neither a safe workplace nor a teleworking option is available, then an employee can legally stay at home on full salary, writes the MME legal firm.

At the same time, there is no law to force people to work from home, the employer’s association says. The MME lawyers counter this and claim that the situation was different during the pandemic, when employees were bound by fiduciary duty to comply with requests to telework.

What is less controversial is the fact that the legal framework that applies in the workplace also applies at home. Home office workers must still observe the terms of their contract, employment law, collective agreements, and so on.

Thus, for example, rules around the frequency of taking breaks, as well as rules around working night and weekend shifts, still apply.

Cost issues

One remaining bone of contention is who bears the cost of all this. Is the employer liable for expenses like energy, water, and heating that are incurred by the teleworker? Two-thirds of employees think they are, according to a survey by the gfs.bern research institute.

The employer’s association has a different opinion. Its guidelines state that practically all such costs should be incurred by employees. Exceptions are expenses directly related to work, and which can be proven by producing receipts – for printer cartridges, for example.

Meanwhile, the Travail Suisse trade union group fears that some employers might end up using home office simply as a cost-saving exercise. To combat this, the group says that, for example, compensation should be offered to employees who need to furnish their own office space. Possible expenses would then be divided equally among both sides.

Cross-border workers

The employer’s association does raise an interesting point in connection with cross-border workers: if somebody works more than 25% of his or her time in a European Union country, rather than Switzerland, then they fall under the social security system of that country, and should pay in correspondingly.

If such an employee was to work over 50% from home, then the local employment law would also supersede Swiss rules. In Germany, for example, October 3 – the date of German reunification – is reserved as a work-free date, but not in Switzerland.

Likewise, home office for employees living across the border could also have tax implications, the employer’s association writes – especially when it comes to the deduction of withholding tax.

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