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Working from home: who benefits?

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that women have born the brunt of the competing demands of homework and childcare. Photo Dirima/shutterstock.com.

“Working from home” has long been an option in many jobs. Now millions of workers have found they have to. For some the dream has turned out to be a nightmare…

It is hard to overestimate the change involved since March 2020 when so many workers started to work from home. It’s a complex picture, with some workers welcoming the change and others finding it highly stressful. Initially it was a necessity for employers, but many companies are now considering their options. Keen to offload the costs of an office, they are wondering if this saving can become permanent.

For workers and trade unions the shift has been sudden and significant, and some employers are now hoping to make the change permanent before anyone asks awkward questions about issues of equity, health and safety and transferring costs to the employees.

Whether you have a job at all is eclipsing discussion of where you work. But this question should not be avoided. Apart from the issues above, workers need to ask themselves: if I can do my job from home, could my job be done from anywhere in the world where labour costs are much lower than in Britain?

True, the history of outsourcing work to different parts of the world has been a mixed one and some types of work have been “re-shored” as employers found that the initial savings were eclipsed by negative impacts on their business.

But the sheer range of work now being done from individual homes has seen a huge expansion. The question of moving work to areas of cheapest labour will not go away.

How has it been for you?

Not surprisingly, workers living in larger houses with space available to designate an area as a home office coped better than most. For those who had long commutes to the workplace, homeworking has genuinely given them more free time.

But the experience of homeworking has been unequal depending on a worker’s personal circumstances, nature of their housing, gender, and age and number of children. If the experience in the workplace was this unequal, there would be uproar.

Workers who have found it highly stressful include parents who have been home schooling several children as well as doing their job – an impossible balancing act. For fear of losing their job, many parents have prioritised work over schooling. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that just one in eight primary school pupils took part in an online lesson during lockdown, which meant that the onus was on parents to do the teaching or the child had no lessons at all.

Similarly, only 28 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds and some 44 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds attended online lessons. Not surprisingly the ONS has found that pupils received a “significantly lower” number of hours learning when a child under the age of four was also in the household. A recent study from the LSE underlined the competing demands on parents, and how the impact was more marked on women.

With schools fully reopening this aspect of home working should be less acute, but the school day is usually shorter than the working day and tensions between childcare and homeworking will persist for parents.

The impact of poor housing on homeworking could affect any age of worker but it was particularly hard for those in shared rental accommodation, many of whom were younger workers.

Someone in this situation explained to Workers magazine: “Not long after lockdown my employer sent out guidance about how to make a ‘workstation’ in the home. I also received health and safety advice from my union about the type of chair and height of the desk etc. However I only have my bedroom in the flat and a shared kitchen which has worksurfaces but no table, so I couldn’t act on this advice.” This worker is still spending the working day sitting up in bed with her work laptop on a tray.

Back soon?

Several employers have made it clear that they are not expecting workers to return to their offices any time soon. Insurer Direct Line expects no more than 20 per cent of its 9,000 staff to return to offices this year. It has increased its investment in technology and cybersecurity to help staff logging in from bedrooms, living rooms or the local café. Its chief executive, Penny James, has said that the aim is to create a sustainable version of home working so that it becomes a long-term option for the business.

The chief executive of Schroders, the UK’s biggest asset manager, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying, “Flexible working is the biggest bonus we could possibly have for productivity in the long term. Let’s walk towards it and let’s figure out how we work differently in the future.”

The term “flexible working” is used to mean a variety of things but often a combination of home and office working. But the Schroders website carries an article which says something rather different:

“Probably the main reason that so many organisations continue to occupy offices is productivity. Despite all the advances in technology, the office is still the best place to communicate with colleagues, spark new ideas, provide training, share values and meet with clients.”

Interestingly the same article contains references to research showing that home working can adversely affect mental health and opportunities for promotion.

“I only have my bedroom in the flat and a shared kitchen which has worksurfaces but no table…”

In a recent webinar about homeworking by techUK, which describes itself as a membership organisation bringing together business and government to explore the benefits of digital technology, employer contributors to the debate talked about moving from “work/life balance” to “work/life integration”, as if this were a healthy development. This sounds like capitalism’s dream: wage slave availability 24/7.

A contributor from the USA talked about how supervisory staff would not be required as there were modern digital methods of “worker assessment” which made their jobs redundant. This “worker assessment’ included tools which, for example, monitored the keystrokes of an employee on their work computer, and it would be more accurately described as worker surveillance.

Employers and the law

Not all workers are aware that their employer has the same health and safety responsibilities for those working from home as in the workplace. Whenever anyone is working from home the law requires an employer to consider how it keeps in touch with its workers, what work activity they will they be doing (and for how long), whether it can be done safely, and whether it needs to put control measures in place to protect them.

Going by this, it’s obvious that those workers who are cooped up in bedrooms with laptops on their knees are not meeting any of the requirements for the Display Screen Equipment as required by the Health and Safety Executive.

If workers were united in insisting that this legislation were implemented, a good number would not be required to work at home as this would breach their conditions of work.

During the Covid -19 emergency it could be argued that the risk of infection outweighed the other health risks. But if working from home is to become a permanent arrangement, what can workers do? If an individual worker raises a concern, they could fear loss of employment.

Despite all the talk of equality in society,  inequalities in housing will lead to a huge inequality in conditions of work too. “Equal pay for equal work” has long been a struggle. Should a new additional demand be “Equal work conditions for the same work”?

 It will be argued that homeworking allows some to be involved in the workplace who couldn’t previously participate. This is true but prior to the pandemic many workplaces had a policy which allowed homeworking to be optional. Optional being the key word. There is an onus on trade unions to raise the questions of employee choice and equity.  

Union organisation

During the period of lockdown several trade unions have seen increases in membership possibly reflecting workers’ concerns about their job security. But how will unions reach the legions of home workers? So much trade union negotiating focuses on conditions of work, now differing hugely.

What happens to training opportunities when workers are at home? Availability of online learning is the easy bit – how is equity in selection of workers for additional training managed? Many future workers will be recruited to their job via virtual interview and will not know any of their colleagues in person. How do they know which union to join?

In recent months trade unions have been using video conferencing tools for meetings, but how does a new worker get to hear about those meetings? Employers are thinking fast. Workers need to think smart too.