In many countries, now, governments and businesses are thinking about what they want to see post-COVID.
The pandemic’s changed a lot of ways in which societies are working: I looked at this where e-commerce is concerned three weeks ago. Big question number one is about how far these changes are temporary, how far permanent. Big question number two about whether governments and businesses should leverage these changes or seek to rebuild what’s been lost.
This week I’m writing about employment and pose big questions numbers three and four: about who gets to choose how things might change and what other changes are required as a result.
Is ‘foresight’ foresight?
There’s been a plethora of recent reports on the impact the pandemic’s having on the world of work. They’re coming out of think tanks and consultancies, government inquiries and corporate headquarters.
Most – particularly from consultancies – are looking at the opportunities for efficiency/productivity in ‘digital transformation’, such as making workers work (at least much of the time) from home rather than making them work from offices. Many see such transformation as ‘progressive’ or ‘inevitable’.
Potential cost-savings for employers in shifting work from city centre real estate to the spare rooms of suburban employees can be attractive, particularly if digital technology overrides historic downsides (loss of teamwork, loss of supervision). Consultancies also know there’s more future work for them in advocating change than business as usual.
(Some data on authors of these reports would be of interest. Ambitious singletons fresh out of business school are likely to be more enthusiastic and less questioning about working from home than those with more domestic responsibilities (such as changing nappies during literature reviews).
Change is clearly happening and likely to accelerate. As usual, it’s impact’s going to be complicated. There are aspects that many will find welcome, both employers and employees, and others that they won’t. As usual, my concern’s about finding ways forward that work for most and protect the welfare of those for whom they don’t. Too little’s being written now about the latter.
So first: is this new? Second: six themes to bear in mind. And finally: some thoughts on digital employment rights.
Is this just an old debate?
It’s a new iteration of an old debate, fed by the new modalities of a digital society.
Homeworking’s not new. It’s been common in some industries – particularly textiles – in many places and at many times. The problems that arise from it – from exploitation to lack of social protection – aren’t new either.
The potential for home working as a result of digitalisation’s also nothing new. When I was a trade union official in the communications sector thirty years ago, we tussled with British Telecom’s desire for its engineers to be based from home rather than at (increasingly redundant) telephone exchanges, and we explored the possibility of operators and administrative staff working from home by mutual arrangement. Worries over supervision then – on both sides – aren’t dissimilar from worries over supervision now.
And the gig economy’s already showing how work relationships can change when jobs leave workplaces for homes. New work relationships don’t need to be informal, or based on freelance contracts, for them to be new. Many of the problems arising in gig work relationships can arise as well where employment’s based on formal employment contracts.
Here are six themes we ought to bear in mind when thinking about the ways digitalisation can alter work and work relationships.
Not every job is equally susceptible to change, or susceptible in the same way.
Some jobs just can’t be done from home – construction and extractive industries, manufacturing, medical and social care, for instance. Others can’t be done nearly as well – teaching, for example. But some can, including many (some think most) that have been done from offices, thanks to digital technology.
‘Can’, of course, does not necessarily that they ‘can be done as well;’ and nor does it mean ‘will’. More needs to be known about the effectiveness, not just the feasibility, of homeworking where it is possible: too many consultancy assessments simply assume that, because it’s digital and new, it must be better.
The fact is: attitudes to work and to the workplace vary.
Some people see work as the main purpose of their lives, some enjoy it, some see it as a necessary evil, some hate what they must do each day in order to get by. Some are ambitious and competitive, others content with what they earn and what they do. Some love the chit-chat at the water-cooler; others hate it. Some are bullied in the work environment, while others bully. Some experience solidarity at work; others harassment.
The impact of a shift of work to home will suit some and not others – not just economically but also psychologically.
Not everyone can readily work from their home.
I’ve done it, as an independent expert, for nearly twenty years. When people ask me what difference COVID has made to my work, the answer is “more time on Zoom, but otherwise not much.” But I’ve always had a separate room as office, so my work’s not overspilled into the rest of life and home. My children were in secondary school when I began to work from home and are now adults, so I didn’t need to break from work for childcare.
That isn’t how it is for most enforced homeworkers. Many have childcare or other domestic responsibilities. Few have rooms that they can set aside specifically for work (which means, effectively, ceding some space within their homes, rent-free, to their employers). I know of people who’ve been running substantial organisations during the pandemic from a corner of their bedroom or the kitchen table.
Not commuting may save money, but homeworking also increases costs for homeworkers, not least in electricity for heating, lighting and computer power. It’s unclear how far employers have gone in compensating workers during the pandemic for extra domestic costs, but the practice doesn’t seem to have been that widespread.
And in some areas these costs are more than just financial. Dealing with confidential issues from home requires greater security – cyber and physical – than is the norm in homes. There are, potentially, insurance implications. Tax arrangements, too, may need to change if part of home’s a workplace.
Employers in the past were often suspicious of homeworking because it was difficult to supervise. How could they be sure workers were working rather than, say, playing computer games or chatting with their friends?
Digital technology’s made oversight – or, it might be called, surveillance – of homeworkers much easier than it used to be. Some gig workers, on freelance rather than employment contracts, are already monitored more intrusively than workers in offices have been historically.
The range of potential modes for supervision/surveillance has expanded beyond keystroke monitoring and webcams, and could soon interface with the IoT devices in domestic homes. Supervision of domestic spaces reaches, too, beyond employment into domestic life, which is especially intrusive where children share domestic spaces being used for work.
A shift from office to home working involves changing relationships – as experience during pandemic’s illustrated. I’ll point to three:
First, interpersonal relationships within the workspace. For some, working from home may be blessed relief from harassment or bullying – but both of those can also be experienced digitally. For many, the loss of personal interaction in the workplace adds to isolation, reduces opportunities for friendships and relationships, curtails social life and shared experience. Employers need to pay attention to this.
Second, career progression. Willingness to be online from home at any hour – and certainly to work beyond established hours – can easily become informally required for career advancement. That’s not only exploitative, it’s also likely to prove discriminatory, undermining equal rights for those with childcare and other responsibilities (who are in practice disproportionately female) and those lacking the resources to buy space at home that isn’t shared with flatmates or family members.
Third, collective representation and solidarity. It is much more difficult for a community of homeworkers to act collectively in relation to employers than for those who share a workplace – irrespective of whether collective action’s organised through a trade union. Homeworking involves a shift of power in the employment relationship towards employers. That’s problematic whether or not it’s being leveraged.
Ideologues (not only Marxists) have argued about whether work is inherently (more) liberating or exploitative for generations.
Practical politics, personnel management (as it was known, now usually called ‘human resource management’) and collective bargaining (where there are effective trades unions) have been concerned with balancing the interests and benefits of employers and employees or, at their best, sharing those benefits with greater equity. To varying degrees and with different outcomes, some much more equitable than others, more or less concerned with workers’ welfare.
The six themes above ask whether a shift from office to home working alters the balances that have been achieved, and how. That’s going to vary between countries, employers and individuals. Whatever settlement’s been reached historically, however, a shift towards home-working is disruptive of norms, rights and rules.
One of the neglected corners of the international rights regime concerns employment rights. Articles 6 to 8 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights cover the right to work, pay and conditions, and trade union rights.
They do, though, reflect the time and framework that they come from (1966, substantially the tripartite International Labour Organisation). Their assumptions cover formal working relationships that it was hoped would spread rather than informal work of the kind that was much more common then (and now) in developing countries or is becoming commoner in developed countries as the gig economy expands. They expect trades unions to be in place, which wasn’t true of many countries then while union membership’s declined substantially even where it was back then the norm. They assume that work is done in workplaces not homes.
Employment rights, in any case, depend much more on national legislation and employer-union relationships (where these exist) than on this rights agreement. The question is: what happens to them now? – in terms of digitalisation generally, and, for present purposes, specifically of homeworking.
It seems to me there is a need to rethink what they mean. Even if the aftermath of the pandemic doesn’t lead to a major shift towards homeworking, there’s a trend to this that needs to be addressed and should not be ignored.
For some homeworking will be advantageous, for others not – but for all it will have widespread implications. These include issues that are covered in established frameworks of employment rights, but need significant rethinking – remuneration, reimbursement of expenses, health and safety. But they also include issues arising from the elision of work and home – such as insurance and security – and from digital surveillance of the work environment. They include changes to the nature of work contracts which may in turn affect taxation and access to social welfare and employment rights (maternity provisions, sick leave, pensions). They may well have outcomes that are discriminatory, intended or more likely unintended.
As with other ‘digital transformations’, it would be better if these things were thought through carefully before they have lasting effects on people’s lives. It would be good if consultancies paid attention to them alongside hyping upsides. Even better if governments, employers’ associations and trades unions did so.