What explains the low work-from-home rates in CEE?
24. 11. 2022 – Lomond
There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years – really, ever since the first lockdowns in early 2020 – about the long-term impacts that Covid would have on working practices. In particular, what would it do to work-from-home rates? The conclusion most people reached was that the impact of the pandemic would be transformative. People would, from now on, work much more flexibly, and we would never go back.
We now have quite a lot of data to analyse – at least for 2020 and 2021 – and, when you consider the issue from a European perspective, the regional disparities that exist across the continent have become very clear. Specifically, work-from-home rates are typically much lower in Central & Eastern Europe than they are in Western Europe. This chart, for example, shows the percentage of employed people who “usually” or “sometimes” worked from home in each EU member state last year, with the countries ranked based on the total percentage who “usually” or “sometimes” worked remotely:
So Estonia is the only CEE country above the EU average line.
That does, to some extent, reflect the situation pre-pandemic too. In 2019, across the EU as a whole, 14.4% of employed people “usually” or “sometimes” worked from home. Three CEE countries were at, or above, that mark two years ago: Estonia (19.7%), Slovenia (17.8%) and Poland (14.4%).
The ‘work-from-home gap’ is therefore not a consequence of Covid, but, interestingly, the pandemic has widened it. That’s clear both from the chart above, and from the increase in the percentage of people “usually” or “sometimes” working from home between 2019 and 2021:
Covid has, therefore, had an impact on work-from-home rates everywhere (as you would expect), but the impact has been much greater in Western Europe than in CEE.
There are various theories, some of which are easier to evaluate than others. Here are three of those you hear most often:
- CEE is a heavily industrialised region, and industrial workers typically can’t work from home
This is a point we have explored before – of the 10 EU member states where industry accounts for the highest share of total gross value added (GVA), eight are in CEE: Slovenia (27.8%), Czech Republic (27.7%), Poland (26.9%), Slovakia (24.9%), Hungary (24.6%), Romania (23.5%), Bulgaria (22.1%) and Lithuania (21.6%). That means a high percentage of industrial workers in these countries, and that must be an important factor in low work-from-home rates.
- There are probably more people in CEE who don’t have the IT infrastructure at home to work effectively from there
This is harder to assess, and there are two separate things to consider: IT equipment and high-quality internet access.
On IT equipment, there were certainly companies across this region that faced big challenges at the beginning of the pandemic in ensuring that staff had what they needed to work effectively from home – but that wasn’t only the case in CEE.
On internet access, this was an issue for some people during the pandemic but it isn’t an area in which the CEE region is clearly lagging behind Western Europe:
- People in CEE don’t like to commute long distances to get to work
Commuting times (and costs) have been a factor behind work-from-home rates in some places, particularly in big cities, and it is a commonly-held view in parts of CEE that, because unemployment rates have been so low for such a long time, people in this region haven’t needed to take jobs which require them to travel long distances to get to work. As a result, so the argument goes, working from home is less attractive than it is for people for whom the alternative is spending hours on a bus or train.
The data doesn’t bear this out, though. In fact, there aren’t any clear regional disparities when it comes to average commuting times.
So what’s the answer?
The high percentage of industrial workers must be part of it, but it probably doesn’t explain the low work-from-home rates in CEE on its own.
There might also be cultural factors at play. Not on the part of employees: we aren’t aware of any evidence – tangible or anecdotal – that people in CEE are somehow culturally less inclined to work from home. But maybe their bosses have less flexible attitudes to staff working remotely?