Brussels, 13 September 2021
Open letter to Mr Johannes Hahn,
Commissioner in charge of Budget and Human Resources
Subject: Your message announcing the compulsory return to the office for one day a week from 20 September
As you may have noticed, your message announcing the compulsory return to the office for one day a week from 20 September has received very strong reactions on our intranet and inside the services.
In this respect, many colleagues have contacted us asking us to invite you to reconsider your decision.
Over the past 18 months, colleagues and their representatives have shown their effort, flexibility, productivity and commitment to our institution and their work.
We have experienced the very positive impacts of flexibility on work-life balance, by enhancing an environment of trust and focusing on results.
Above all, Commission staff have shown that autonomy works, and that full trust is well deserved.
As some Directorates General have duly acknowledged, the pandemic has demonstrated that for our staff in terms of productivity, teleworking is as effective as, if not more effective than, working in the office.
As you know, we have enthusiastically supported your will to introduce a profound change in our institution, based on the culture of trust and management based on the “leading by example” approach.
However, these commitments are not properly reflected in the draft decision on working time and hybrid working that we are currently negotiating. Moreover, the current decision on the compulsory return to the office for one day a week from 20 September does not live up to the trust either.
In fact, the first reaction to your message within certain services even of our administration was to directly announce a disciplinary procedure against any colleague who did not come to the office, instead of listening to the concerns and fears expressed.
We would like to point out that the Federal Ministry of Public Service strongly recommends teleworking in the Brussels region, despite the general improvement in other parts of the country: https://www.archynetys.com/ teleworking-remains-recommended-for-federal-public-services-located-in-brussels/
Belgian Health Minister Mr Vandenbroucke, has just warned of a recent increase in intensive care admissions related to COVID-19: https://www.lesoir.be/393891/article/2021-09-09/vandenbroucke-met-en-garde-nous-constatons-une-forte-augmentation-des-admissions
According to available forecasting models, a saturation of the intensive care units is likely at the end of October in Brussels.
Many colleagues will have to use public transport to get to the office and covering the mouth and the nose with a mask remains compulsory in public spaces, which might not be the most appealing environment to be at the office and have face-to-face meetings where, all too often, sanitary measures are not respected and masks are not worn, especially if the hierarchy is not wearing it…thus failing again to comply with their leading by example obligations…like it is the case for their offices.
In the light of the above, it is easily understandable that your decision has deeply affected our colleagues, and even more so those with health concerns for themselves and/or for those they live with.
Colleagues in a risk group (or living with someone that belongs to a risk group), and therefore not allowed to go to the office, have already mentioned to us the risk of having their health concern made public in the list established in any unit to record office attendance.
Even the ceiling of 50% maximum presence in the office is not reassuring enough, to the extent that the ceiling is calculated per building, allowing much more than 50% of colleagues to be present on a single floor, provided that the other conditions are met.
We do not need to mention here the concerns of our collegues in dynamic collaborative spaces. Some of them have already shared with us their fear that their office cannot be cleaned if the colleagues who occupied it the day before or half a day before have not turned the desk over on their way out to make it clear to the cleaning staff that the desk needs to be cleaned.
As the massive negative reactions of the staff have shown, the mandatory return to office 1 day per week with no flexibility even in duly justified cases, the administration’s repeated reference to disciplinary procedures instead of duly encouraging dialogue and willingness to listen, at this stage, is likely to cause unnecessary upheaval and stress to many colleagues and that will be reflected in the Staff Survey 2021 that DG HR will launch next month.. This would also lead to many inquiries and individual cases for HR to deal with, all of which can be easily avoided reconsidering this decision about mandatory return to the office.
Reconsidering your decision about 1 day per week of mandatory work from the office will benefit all. Colleagues wishing to work from the office more often would be able to do so, instead of having to share any % of maximum presence with colleagues who would prefer to telework for the reasons mentioned above.
The postulate of a true culture of trust is also to limit as much as possible the decisions imposed on everyone by respecting instead the choices of colleagues who have already largely demonstrated their effectiveness in the last 18 months.
For all these reasons, pending a definite improvement of the pandemic in Brussels, we would ask you to reconsider your decision and allow more flexibility concerning the return to the office, as many other organisations have recently announced.
Mrs Gertrud Ingestad, Director-General – DG HR
Mr Christian Roques, Director – DG HR
Mr Ewoud Sakkers, Head of Unit – HR E1
Mr Laurent Duluc, HR E1
Staff of the Commission and the Executive Agencies