How ‘compulsory’ are France’s impending work-from-home rules?

Generic shot of someone listening to a Zoom meeting on their laptop while working from home
Photo: Loic Venance / AFP
From January, France's recommendations for remote working become compulsory - but what exactly are the rules and how strictly are the 'obligatory' days monitored?

“Recourse to télétravail (remote working) will be made compulsory, I mean compulsory, in all companies and for all employees for whom it is possible,”  Prime Minister Jean Castex announced during a press conference on December 27th.

Previously, the government had called on employers to allow staff to work from home in the run-up to Christmas, but this represents a change in tone from recommendations to rules. 

“The obligation to remote-work three days a week, or even four, when possible, will be included in the national company protocol which will be updated this week, as had been the case during previous periods concerned by remote working obligations,” the Employment Ministry said in a statement, following Castex’s announcement.

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The rules

In the current corporate health protocol (pdf), operational since Castex’s earlier encouragement to work from home on December 8th, remote working was strongly recommended – “the target must be two to three days of télétravail per week” , but with this important addition, “subject to the constraints linked to the organisation of work and the situation of the employees”.

It’s likely that, when it is updated, the health protocol will be more strongly worded – as it was in the versions published on October 29, 2020 (pdf), or November 13, 2020 (pdf) – which read: “In the current exceptional circumstances, linked to the threat of the epidemic, [télétravail] must be the rule for all activities which allow it. In this context, working time carried out remotely is increased to 100 percent for employees who can perform all of their tasks remotely. ” 

The rule as stated is a minimum of three day a week working at home, ideally four or more.

This concerns only those whose work can be done remotely, those who work in jobs that require their presence can continue to go to work and there is no suggestion (yet) that workplaces where remote working is impossible (eg cafés) will be shut down.

What does this mean for employers and employees?

Well… It all depends on what your definition of ‘compulsory’ is. Which, it turns out, is not as easy to pin down as simply looking in the dictionary.

Once rules are tightened or loosened, it’s up to businesses to implement them. One of the first questions, obviously, is whether any position can be a work-from-home one.

Some, very clearly, are not jobs that can be done at home. Some, equally clearly, are. But it’s up to the employer and employee to agree whether a particular position is suitable for home working. Sometimes this is a decision between individual bosses and employees; sometimes it is a collective decision.

The accord national interprofessionnel (pdf) from November 26th, 2020, details how an agreement can be reached – from collective agreement or charter, to an amendment to the employment contract, or even a simple email agreement.

But the fact remains that, only a minority of workers can work from home. A survey published by government body the Direction de l’animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques (Dares) on December 23rd revealed that only 21 percent of employees worked from home for a minimum of one day in November. Only 6 percent worked from home all month.

The same survey, however, revealed that 40 percent of employees worked from home during the lockdown of Spring 2020, indicating that there is some room for manoeuvre.

Enforcement issues

Not all businesses accept the idea of working from home – even where it is feasible. 

Patrick Martin, deputy president of employer federation Mouvement des entreprises de France (Medef), said in reaction to Castex’s announcement of compulsory home working: “Three days of télétravail, if necessary four, it is a lot for many businesses,” that he claimed would have, “major disruptive effects”.

Meanwhile, a study published in September by the General Union of Engineers, Executives and Technicians of the CGT indicated that 98 percent of employees questioned favour partial remote work, but no more than two or three days a week.

Once work from home rules are made compulsory, the question of monitoring compliance with the rules arises. One major problem is the lack of staff to ensure the rules are being followed.

The CGT-TEFP union has also long called for a tightening of the legal framework concerning teleworking, and has criticised the weakness of the penalties incurred.

The Employment Ministry is set to propose an amendment to the bill to include “more dissuasive and rapid administrative sanctions”, following a meeting between officials and unions on Tuesday.

In all cases it is the business that faces sanctions for lack of remote working, not the individual employee.

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