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HomePoliticsEuropean PoliticsHow the Zoom revolution will transform the Brussels bubble

How the Zoom revolution will transform the Brussels bubble

This article is part of After Corona, a series exploring how the pandemic has changed the world.

The hottest debate in Brussels this fall won’t be about rule of law or the budget. It’ll be about teleworking, hot desking and online voting.

Organizations around the world are grappling with how to apply lessons from the pandemic and adapt to the Zoom revolution. And the European Union’s two largest institutions are no exception.

Debates have broken out in the European Commission and the European Parliament over how to blend traditional in-person work with the possibility of remote participation.

In the Commission, the frontline cuts between managers, who are reluctant to lose direct oversight of their subordinates, and lower-level employees, who are keen to cement the benefits of remote work. In the Parliament, the discussion centers on whether democracy is better served when MEPs are required to gather in one place — or if more flexible arrangements allow them to be in better touch with their constituents.

Both institutions are working toward finalizing rules that would come into effect when the coronavirus subsides, setting working conditions for the coming months, if not years.

“The negotiation on what we call the ‘new normal’ is going to be very tense,” said Cristiano Sebastiani, a Commission official and president of Renouveau et Démocratie, one of the largest unions representing EU civil servants. “At the Commission, teleworking is still perceived as a gift you give to those who deserve [it] the most.”

Remote Commission

Before the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the Commission and Parliament had already put in place flexible working arrangements and been reflecting on the future of work.

The coronavirus accelerated this process. The three main EU institutions — the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of the EU — put emergency measures in place, including mandatory masks, social distancing rules in meetings and teleworking for all. The Parliament also scrapped plenary sessions from Strasbourg and expanded online voting in plenary and committee meetings.

Now, as the institutions contemplate workers returning to their desks, some of those measures have become the basis for new work plans that are poised to enter into force next fall. COVID permitting (still a huge question mark), the Commission is aiming to allow half of its workforce back in the office by September, with teleworking guidelines adopted in the early fall.

According to a recent negotiating document seen by POLITICO, the Commission is proposing its employees spend at least 40 percent of their workweek (equivalent to two days a week) in the office and at least 20 percent (one day a week) working from home, with the rest being decided in agreement with their bosses. Line managers can also decide that on specific days of the week, individual workers or entire teams should come into the office.

When teleworking, employees will be required to stay “at no great distance” from their place of employment, according to the document. “Staff need to be able to physically come to the office within two hours as of the moment they are instructed to do so.” In case of technical difficulties at home, “staff are required to come back to the office at their own expense without delay.”

Staff will be allowed to telework outside their place of employment for 10 working days a year, “linked with at least 5 days of annual leave.” In some circumstance, such as family reasons, they can be granted authorization to telework from abroad for a month. But if they’re needed back at the office, they “may be required to come back at their place of employment at their own cost within 48 hours.” The transit time won’t necessarily count toward working hours.

With the Commission seeking to shrink its real-estate footprint, Sebastiani said the institution is looking to expand hot desking — shared workspaces used by different employees on different days. Gertrud Ingestad, the Commission’s director general for human resources, has set up the open-space plan in her unit in a bid to woo her counterparts.

The proposed changes are the subject of heated dispute, according to Sebastiani. He described a “flagrant gap” between the Commission’s directors general “who oppose telework because it means loss of control and command over staff” and others, such as EU Commissioner for Budget and Administration Johannes Hahn, “who preach a culture of trust and of verifying results rather than controlling presence.”

He added that his union is negotiating with the Commission over how to expand hot desking, emphasizing that the change must be equitable. “We can’t have movable desks for employees, and managers who have individual offices and quality chairs and who restrict telework,” he said.

Virtual Parliament

The Parliament too is putting in place a system to govern remote work. With few critical exceptions, almost everyone working for the secretariat, including trainees and seconded national experts, will have the right to work from home at least one day a week, according to a readout from a late June meeting of the Parliament’s staff committee with Kristian Knudsen, head of the body’s personnel department.

Staff will be able to choose an “Intermediate Telework Arrangement” to work two days a week from home, and the “Maximum” arrangement would allow for three. Following agreement with a direct supervisor, “any refusal has to be justified,” the readout says. Individual MEPs and political groups can also opt into this new system.

Parliamentary assistants endorsed regular teleworking rules in their own set of feedback, along with a plan to reimburse expenses related to a home office. They also asked for other quality-of-life changes — no more voting sessions in the morning, for example, since those “force people to check the [voting lists] late at night or too early in the morning.”

In a recent reflection paper called “Back to the new normal,” the Parliament’s staff said a hybrid work arrangement would allow people to go to their offices to “guarantee the founding principles of the European project, which is the multicultural spirit fueled by expatriation.” They also made clear that if telework becomes the norm, there should be no “geographical limit” to it, as “staff could live further from their place of work and thus, pay less expensive rents.” However, the document also called for a “right to disconnect,” as “telework increases the feeling of being constantly available.”

One senior Parliament official and member of the staff committee said the only real issue of contention was whether staff had to telework in Brussels or if they’d be free to Zoom in from their countries of origin.

The official dismissed arguments by some in the institution that such a move would mean “the end of the European civil service.”

“They’re swimming against the tide,” the official said. “If you’re going to be 50 percent teleworking, why are we restricted to Brussels?”

‘The end of parliamentarism’

As the staff discusses working from home, MEPs have been debating under what conditions they should be allowed to carry out their democratic functions remotely. Parliament President David Sassoli set up five “focus groups” among MEPs in April to discuss, among other things, whether they would continue voting online in plenaries and committees — and if they could scrap traveling to Brussels for work that could be done from far away.

The groups are expected to finalize their recommendations this week, with final results to be discussed after the summer holidays.

Most MEPs concede that some meetings — including testimonies by external experts or debates on laws by the Parliament’s “shadow rapporteurs” — should continue to be held online. However, there’s less agreement over to what extent voting or debates in plenary and committees should be held remotely.

On one end of the spectrum are veterans like Rainer Wieland, a vice president of the Parliament and an influential German MEP from the European People’s Party, who frets an expansion of remote work will undermine the institution’s ability to function. “It could mean the end of parliamentarism,” said Wieland, 64. When negotiators can’t hash things out in person, “we get worse results in politics.”

“For me, voting is a privilege, a holy procedure,” he added. “Voting must be in presence.”

In Wieland’s 15th floor office, the thick smell of tobacco is a reminder of an earlier era. But as the vice president in charge of the Parliament’s buildings, he’s laid out his suite as a showcase of contemporary office design: sliding doors to transform a private conference room into an open space, sleek Nordic-inspired furniture and a teensy theater with stair-step seating for informal gatherings or viewing the inevitable videoconference.

He’s hoping the chic, eco-friendly designs in the works since before the pandemic but completed during lockdowns — will woo his colleagues back to Brussels. The alternative, he warned, is a hybrid system that would be subject to a whole range of abuses, starting with an array of motives for not going to the office. “It starts with pregnancy where I would have sympathy for but then it’s a severe illness, then it’s a less severe illness, then it’s only a headache, then it’s possibly, ‘I have better to go to Berlin to see Mrs. Merkel, my party leader, or my local chairman,” Wieland said. “At the end of the day, people say, it’s more convenient to do it from home.”

He said that the apparent rise in attendance for online meetings was “a holy lie, or a misperception.” “You can have people online but doing something else or who switch the cameras off,” he said.

Wieland is opposed by mostly younger MEPs like Niklas Nienaß, 29, a German Green, who argues that remote participation allows parliamentarians to carry out their duties while also being closer to the people they represent.

“With this remote thing, you at least have the possibility to attend, even when you’re not in Brussels,” Nienaß said. “There’s more participation. We definitely have more voting; we have 98 percent voting participation at the moment,” compared to about three-quarters before, he said.

His colleague Manuela Ripa, another German Green, complained that MEPs were told that “for the media and the citizens, it is important that MEPs are present in plenaries.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Ripa said. “But if 700 MEPs are sitting in the hemicycle, for the media or for the citizens, it does not change anything. If we’re all sitting there raising our hands for one and a half hours, who understands what we are doing? Just going back to the old model would not help.”

Bursting the bubble

Pre-pandemic, the Brussels bubble was in a constant state of inflation and release, as people seeking to argue their cause made the pilgrimage to the EU seat. Lobbyists, journalists and citizens alike are now waiting to see what these institutions decide before plotting their own travel plans.

There are “a lot of very mobile people” who go back and forth regularly between home and Brussels, said Andrew Powrie-Smith, executive director for communications for the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations. “You sit in any hotel lobby in Brussels on a Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night,” and you’ll find them, he said. Powrie-Smith had been one of them, constantly commuting from his home in Scotland. “I’m not sure if that’s what people want to go back to.”

Brussels is still an essential “hub where these things come together,” Powrie-Smith said. “But maybe it doesn’t need to be as concentrated as it has been, because it can be kind of insular.”

Then there’s the question of whether teleworking will be good or bad for the European project. On one side of the debate is a vocal minority who want to telework from wherever — anywhere but Brussels or Luxembourg, really — in perpetuity. Many went back to their home countries (in defiance of official policy) during the first lockdown and don’t want to return. They argue that remote working could pop the Brussels bubble and create institutions that truly inhabit the whole of the European Union.

They are opposed by those who think that such a scenario would be “the biggest mistake,” in the words of one Commission employee at an executive agency, granted anonymity to speak candidly about rank-and-file perspectives. Unless managers arrange to have the right mix of people in the office at any given time, there won’t be much point in being there.

“Now we’re only speaking to people with[in] our own unit,” the employee said. “You get ideas, you get understanding, you get innovation” from checking in with other departments. “I think this is going to be completely lost.”

“What’s important is this European feeling,” the employee said. “We have to learn how to work together, and this is the brilliance of the Eurobubble.”

If all but the most hardcore EU bureaucrats abandon Brussels, they could get even more insular. “We’re supposed to be there to serve the European citizens. If we don’t see them, and we get more and more isolated, then this could have a negative impact,” the employee said. “We don’t want to be in the ivory tower.”

Hans Joachim von der Burchard contributed reporting.

This article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

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