One of the benefits that’s often been claimed for the digital society is the opportunity for people to work from home rather than in offices. The current COVID-19 crisis has made that opportunity mandatory for many.
We’re in the midst of an experiment in the benefits, the challenges and the limits of homeworking. Millions upon millions have turned spare rooms (if they have them) into home offices and now spend their days in Zoom chats and on Microsoft Teams in virtual rather than physical proximity with their co-workers.
How’s that going? And what questions should we ask?
Pros and cons
As with most aspects of the digital society there are pros and cons. Digital enthusiasts emphasise the former, sceptics the latter.
Enthusiasts believe that working from home adds flexibility and increases productivity. Both employers and employees gain, they say, if the latter have more choice over when to work, and if they’re undistracted by chitchat by the water cooler. Time wasted in commuting can now be spent at work or play.
Sceptics worry that flexibility’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Homeworkers are distracted by their families (and opportunities to do other things online), rather than co-workers. Bosses don’t trust their workers to work not play. Working from home is isolating and exploitative: it puts burdens on workers without offering as many benefits.
We are, as I’ve said, in an enforced experiment on this at present. Enthusiasts for digitalisation – particularly management consultants – see it as an opportunity to advance the cause of homeworking. Office workers won’t, they think, go back to office working now they’ve Zoomed for hours from home. But are they right?
Two fundamental points to start with.
Only some jobs can be homeworked
Most of the policy discussion here is taking place among those who’ve spent all their working lives in offices. Deep down, a lot of them think that’s where most work takes place. They’ve no experience of work in factories or farms, care homes or schools, waste disposal sites or car repair workshops.
They understand jobs that can be homeworked, in other words, but much less those that can’t. (A mirror image of my grandfather, a coalminer, who refused to accept that what my father did as a teacher was actually work.)
But most jobs can’t be homeworked. You can’t make cars from home, or care for those living with dementia, pick strawberries or build out broadband networks.
And there’s another aspect to this. Those office-workers that are thinking about policies are generally much higher-paid than those who work in farms and factories and care homes. They have less understanding of the life experience as well as the work experience of others.
Only some people want to homework
Some organisations thrive on homeworking – APC’s an obvious example – but others don’t, and likewise people. It suits those with school-age children, for example, much more than those with pre-school children; those with spare space at home than those who live in overcrowded homes; those whose homes are their safe spaces than those who have found work a refuge from families in breakdown or domestic violence; those who have good broadband than those who don’t.
Generalisations about the merits of homeworking are therefore, often, over-generalised. In the experiment that is now underway, we need to learn what works for whom, and how to recombine homeworking with the office work environments that office-workers thought and still think the norm.
Here are five questions that I think we should be asking about the homeworking experience, and on which we should be seeking evidence - real evidence, not assumptions, anecdotes or spin. Not the only questions, but five important ones.
First, what is the actual effect of homeworking on productivity? Is it making (some) people more productive? Saving time that’s wasted on idle chitchat in the office? Enabling more or less effective co-working? Making meetings more productive? Improving or damaging relationships between managers and managed?
And for whom are these conclusions true? In practice, I’d expect considerable differences between different types of office work, and the different experience of different individuals and working groups. Can generalities be drawn, and if so what do they say about these differences?
Working at home is different from working at work. Homeworking transfers significant costs from employer to employee – such as heating and lighting the workplace. It requires people to work in spaces that are not properly equipped for health and safety, including the ergonomics of desk working. Those spaces may not be properly insured. There are obvious cybersecurity issues for both employer and employee.
A long-term shift to homeworking will also affect employment rights. Employment practices similar to those prevalent in the gig economy (zero hours contracts, freelance rather than employment contracts) may spread more widely, with loss of rights such as sick pay, maternity leave and pensions. And it’s much more difficult for trade unions to represent homeworkers than workers who gather together in the workplace.
For many people work’s an important part of social interaction. That may be negative – workplace bullying, after all, is widespread – but it’s more often positive. Work is a place where lifelong friendships start. Many people meet life partners there. It reduces isolation for those who live alone. It offers respite for those whose lives are constrained, for example by gender discrimination, or whose home lives are abusive.
Again, there’ll be big differences between the experiences of different individuals. We need to know more here than simply what’s an average outcome. We need to understand the different experiences that people have and the different ways in which they, their employers and public services need to respond if new ways of working are to benefit not harm them.
Fourth and fifth, two wider questions.
The digital industry’s often argued that homeworking benefits the environment, for example by reducing commuting and its consequences (pollution and carbon emissions from vehicles). In practice, the environmental impact’s more complex and more mixed. Two illustrations.
Energy use in offices is likely to be more efficient, per employee, than homeworking. One office with fifty workers can be heated and lit at lower carbon cost than fifty houses each with one. Homeworking also increases volumes of data traffic, each bit of data adding a bit of energy consumption. Homeworking isn’t carbon neutral.
Second, the relationship between homeworking and vehicle use is more complex than it seems. In some countries/cities, most commuters use public transport not private cars (though not America, where so much of the digital society is made). And there are what are known as rebound effects: people who are not using their cars in order to commute are more likely to use them for leisure, shopping and family visits during the day.
Many city centres today are office hubs. People commute to work in offices but don’t live there. Other businesses – bars and restaurants, bookshops and clothes shops – are there to serve the office workers that come in each day. Visit those city centres on a non-working day – in London, for example, Sunday – and they’re deserted: dead spaces, much like those that those of us in lockdown see today.
Even relatively small changes in the numbers working in city centres can have big effects on how they function. Surplus office space can’t easily be converted into other uses. Profit margins for sandwich bars and other retail outlets are low and rely on rapid customer footfall. Vibrant urban hubs can soon be blighted if employment falls at the same time as high street shops lose out to home shopping.
What do we need to know?
My point here is that we’ve too little knowledge about the impact of homeworking on these (and others) aspects of our economies, societies and cultures. Positive impacts can and should be maximised, but there will also be negatives – for employers, for employees, for society as a whole – that we can and should minimise or mitigate.
The current upsurge in homeworking gives us an opportunity to learn. Three final points.
First, our learning should recognise that homeworking’s only available to some workers, not to all. All workers are affected, though, by the current crisis. We should not focus overwhelmingly on one sector (particularly one that is, on average, better paid).
Second, impacts are going to be uncertain and prolonged. Some office-workers are likely to be allowed back to work earlier than others. Some will be desperate to return, others will hate having to do so. How will the majority feel, and will that change over time as the novelty of homeworking wanes? How will employers respond?
And third, discussions about this shouldn’t be confined to governments and businesses. I’ve seen very little input so far from trades unions and workers themselves. Their views, including surveys, will be needed; indeed, what employees think should be centre stage, not on the margins.
Next week: another aspect of our changing digital environment in a time of crisis.