"More and more Swiss want to work remotely from abroad"

Employers need to adjust to changes in employees' lifestyles, including the growing trend of telecommuting and working from abroad. However, the legal and administrative risks associated with this practice often act as a deterrent for employers. Insights below from Isabelle Wildhaber, a specialist in commercial and digital law.

While in-person work has become commonplace once again in the country, remote work from abroad has continued to gain traction in Switzerland since the pandemic. Specializing in cybersecurity, the SME Redguard offers this opportunity to its 80 employees for four to six weeks annually. For its founder, Sven Vetsch, this option allows him to blend his passion for travel with his commitment to a thriving business. Major corporations like insurer AXA have also chosen to formalize and regulate this practice.

This emerging trend presents both an opportunity and a challenge for businesses. On one hand, allowing employees to occasionally work remotely from abroad can be a valuable asset in attracting and retaining top talent, especially in sectors experiencing a shortage of skilled workers. On the other hand, implementing this option requires employers to address numerous issues, including tax obligations, affiliation with social insurance, and immigration status, which can be daunting. Isabelle Wildhaber, Professor of Private and Commercial Law at the University of St. Gallen and founder of the start-up Vamoz, a software as a service platform providing specialized assistance and advice to enable remote work abroad, sheds light on the implications of this practice for companies.

Why should an employer allow their employees to work remotely from abroad?

Isabelle Wildhaber: There's a rising demand for remote work from abroad in Switzerland, even among companies that haven't officially adopted this option for their employees. Employers can't easily overlook this trend, particularly in sectors facing a shortage of skilled workers. For instance, companies in the IT sector employ profiles that are relatively scarce and prone to switching employers. Offering them the chance to work remotely from abroad proves to be an effective means of both attracting and retaining talent.

What are the main motivations driving employees to request such an opportunity?

Wildhaber: It's becoming increasingly common to take advantage of this opportunity to extend a stay after a vacation (referred to as a "workation," a blend of "work" and "vacation") or simply to spend the winter in a region with a tropical climate. Some countries in the South have recognized this trend and seek to benefit from it by offering special immigration statuses for these "digital nomads." However, the idealized image of the digital nomad in shorts at a beach resort doesn't represent the majority of cases. We find that requests made to employers are often tied to the personal and family situations of the employees. Many of them have relatives abroad and want to leverage this geographical flexibility to care for elderly parents or to be closer to their family during school holidays, for instance.

Some companies opt not to take a definitive stance on the matter or prohibit the practice altogether to safeguard against potential administrative and legal risks. Is this a prudent decision?

Wildhaber: Employers cannot afford to ignore this emerging issue, and outright prohibition carries its own risks. Not only would it diminish the company's appeal in the recruitment market, but it's also doubtful whether it would effectively prevent employees from working abroad. They might work from abroad secretly. This could lead to problematic situations. In fact, even if a company is unaware of its employee's work from abroad, it would still be held accountable for its irregular situation if authorities were to discover it.

What is the best way to regulate remote work from abroad?

Wildhaber: The key challenge lies in finding a balance between flexibility and stability. Nowadays, there are consultancy services and specialized automated platforms, such as Vamoz, that assess the risks associated with each request on a case-by-case basis while guiding employees through the process.

Another approach is to adopt a standardized solution instead of evaluating each case individually, such as allowing, for example, 20 days of remote work per year within the European Union (EU) or a member country of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). However, even in the case of short-term work within the EU/EFTA, there are potential risks arising related to immigration status or insurance that cannot be disregarded. Therefore, it's preferable to conduct a case-by-case evaluation.

Many professions lack access to this decisive benefit. How can employers address this disparity?

Wildhaber: There is indeed a risk of creating a two-tiered system. Especially in the industrial sector, remote work is often impossible for many. Rather than preventing employees who can work remotely from doing so, it would be more beneficial to offer alternative advantages to those who cannot, in order to maintain a sense of fairness.



Isabelle Wildhaber, co-founder of the Law&Tech Lab at the University of St. Gallen

Isabelle Wildhaber, holding degrees in law from the University of Basel, Harvard, and Zurich, has been a professor of private and commercial law at the University of St. Gallen since 2010. She notably co-founded the Law&Tech Lab, an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to digital law. In parallel, in 2022, she founded Vamoz, a start-up providing legal and practical advice to companies seeking to implement remote work from abroad.

Last modification 15.05.2024

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