ANALYSIS: How the pandemic could change Spanish work and social culture permanently

Typical Spanish working and socialising habits we once took for granted are in danger of disappearing forever, writes Graham Keeley in Barcelona.

ANALYSIS: How the pandemic could change Spanish work and social culture permanently
Gone is the carefree attitude to socializing. Now every meeting is about weighing up the risks. Photo: AFP

Paella is Spain's trademark dish which is normally enjoyed straight from the pan among friends in a bustling restaurant.

A great paella chef once taught me to take my time savouring the way the rice mixes with the flavours of seafood or the meat.

However, the other day, on a visit to a friend's house by the sea, I got a glimpse of how typically Spanish habits like this are changing.

Our hosts did not want to eat out in a restaurant for fear of contracting COVID-19 so instead brought the paella home.

It did not make any difference to our enjoyment of the food but it was a subtle change in how we are starting to live.

That set me thinking about how the Spanish way of life may be altering as we face the uncomfortable possibility of a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Perhaps the best way is to start with the best meal of the day – breakfast.

When I started living here, I was hugely impressed by the way Spaniards started the day.

Most don't eat anything until they get into work. Then, after they have clocked on/turned on the computer/checked their emails- they do the logical thing and head out to have breakfast, which is an office ritual.

Breakfast in the bar around the corner from the office was the typical way to start the day. Photo: Juan Fernandez / Flickr

This can consist of a bocadillo or a croissant washed down with a coffee or even a beer. (Starting the day with a beer while at work always won my utmost respect).

However, this morning ritual doesn't look like such a good idea. As the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise, arriving with a gaggle of office workers at a cafe might make some nervous.

That said, just arriving in the office itself might not be what many people want to do just now.

Quite how many people are still teletrabajando at home is not known as no survey of the working population has emerged so far.

As the schools prepare to go back next week for the first time since March, the Spanish government is expected to bring in a law which will make working at home legally part of the job for millions.

Employees will be allowed the right to carry out between 20 and 30 percent of their job responsibilities from home(if the job allows for this).

Quite how much time can be spent teletrabajando depends on the final deal ironed out by the government, business leaders and unions.

Whatever the law finally says, it will represent a revolution in Spain. It will set in stone rights to work hours, digital disconnection and claiming back any costs run up if you work at home.

Until now, the culture in most Spanish offices has been one of presenteeism.

READ ALSO:  Ten phrases you'll only hear if you work in an office in Spain

I worked in a Spanish newspaper office for ten years and saw for myself how people would stay long into the evening doing not very much.

There seemed to be a divide along sexual lines.

Most men, who were usually the bosses, would stay late or even go for a drink afterwards.

The majority of women, in contrast, would generally try to escape to waiting children.

Then there were other women, whose children were older or who did not have families, who seemed to hang around in the office doing precious little.

One gets the sense that this is about to change in Spain.

During lockdown and afterwards, many people I spoke to said they were in no hurry to return to the office.

Photo: AFP


One friend has even taken to convening meetings at her home, with her boss coming to her. She does not have to troop into the office- for now anyway.

Of course, this could have drawbacks if your work life perhaps becomes too involved with your home life. But perhaps that is one to worry about later. 

Perhaps another way that habits have changed is how we socialise.

The long lunches with a glass of brandy or a cigar at the end were already on the decline. 
More people have taken to eating at their desks. 
Perhaps now  these traditions will become a thing of the past, sadly.  
Eating out is an essential pleasure of Spanish life. Most restaurants are reasonably priced and the weather usually allows for a pleasant sobremesa afterwards to let the food go down.

Of course, COVID-19 has put the kibosh on all that. For now, anyway, meals are not the relaxed, leisurely affairs they once were.

Now you have to weigh up the risk versus the pleasure when you think of going out for a meal, a drink or meeting up with people.

It might not change the way we behave permanently but it seems this pandemic is not – as they said at the start of the First World War –  going to be over before Christmas.

Despite the announcement that Spain will begin trials on a vaccine this autumn, rolling it out across the country is still a long way off.



Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.