The rush to homeworking using digital technologies may have kept business (and a lot of society) functioning since the COVID-19 outbreak. However, on-going research at the Work and Equalities Institute (WEI) suggest that long-term sustainability of such arrangements is high risk and fraught with tension.
COVID-19 has placed much of the world in lockdown and many workers are now having to work from home as a result. It appears the response has been impressive and for the most part better than could be expected: an initial snapshot from a survey of 113 United States (US) Chief Financial Officers by Deloitte suggests that three-quarters of corporations are functioning at about 80% of their capacity (in terms of revenue). Of course not all workers have the option to work from home, although those that can seem to have adapted well at very short notice.
Continuing productive capacity through homeworking?
Almost 30 years ago, Peter Drucker predicted that commuting to an office for work would be obsolete. One important reason why such a prediction never came to fruition is that employers want to control what their employees do. However, increasingly technology enables remote working and employer surveillance. Indeed, because of the rapid switch to remote working, some are considering a longer or even permanent shift to homeworking. The voices calling for such a move are wide and varied: Harriet Hall, Lifestyle Editor of The Independent argues “it shouldn’t take coronavirus for big companies to encourage remote working”. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the leading body in the United Kingdom and Ireland for over 145,000 human resource (HR) managers is more cautious, yet predicts a rise in remote working, with its former Chief Economist, Ian Brinkley, commenting that there “will be an increase in working from home and an acceleration in the shift to online economic activity” post COVID-19. It may also be that workers want to continue with homeworking: after all, who doesn’t want to work without a morning commute!
But are homeworking and new forms of remote employment, using technologies, really all they are claimed to be? Research underway at the WEI suggests that things are much more uncertain and that remote working can be stressful, lead to greater work precarity and casualization, resulting in less rather than more sustainable productive capacity. It can also be fraught with ethical and equity challenges for HR professionals.
Work intensification, casualization and shock doctrine options
Some survey data suggests that 44% of workers who embraced homeworking are working longer and harder. Many of these said they face major distractions, with family interactions and home-schooling placing additional burdens on women.
Homeworking can be seen as a new austerity drive. Some companies are considering longer-term outsourcing of jobs, which will add to the already expansive threats to unemployment post-COVID-19 as the economy faces a major economic downturn. For example, use of online outsourcing through digital labour platforms (DLPs) has increased – such as Peopleperhour.com, Freelancer.com, Upwork.com, Guru.com and Mturk.com. For some large corporate clients, outsourcing to third party digital labour providers is a way of turning permanent employees into insecure gig-workers in a Shock Doctrine fashion, using the crisis to impose further cuts and rationalisations.
The consequences of such an option are high risk and any cost savings may be short-lived. Corporate reputation can be tarnished with even consumer backlash and protest a real possibility. Workers who find themselves casualised and insecure become demotivated and a virtuous cycle of mistrust beckons. As options for furloughing or laying-off staff altogether are considered, the experiment of technological remote working becomes an unethical and dubious pathway used to circumvent employment costs and weaken employment rights and regulation. In our research, one employer remarked:
“[When] you’re operating as a true virtual company… you haven’t got a long term employee on your books because that’s expensive… If you look at where we are now with people being furloughed… it’s a huge problem for employers to know what to do with staff. He continued to predict that “[DLPs are] going to grow with more people being out of work now… through corona[virus]”.
Loneliness and digital presenteeism
While getting up and having the freedom to work whenever sounds attractive, the function of working is as much a social activity as an economic necessity. The research signals that those who have to work remotely can face untold mental health problems from loneliness as a result of remote working. Indeed, working remotely via digital platforms may actually exacerbate these problems. Some workers feel they have to constantly be online to show they are working to their manager – or at least appear to be logged-on and ready for work.
Research by the International Labour Organization (ILO) finds that even for those who are experienced remote workers, using technology on a regular basis, are much more stressed in their job compared to other employees who regularly interact in a physical work setting. The ILO research covered Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, UK, US (and others). Social media and the need to feel ‘switched on’ constantly amounts to a newer form of ‘digital presenteeism’, and ‘Zoom meeting fatigue’ becomes physically exhausting.
Digital work as an (impersonal) social endeavour
Physical connectivity from employment has a deep philosophical and psychological impact on us as humans, and remote technical work challenges some of these innate human desires. When we interact with co-workers we add to a social environment that in turn develops, sometimes intuitively, our own feelings about the value of our efforts and how we are making a contribution: whether that is designing a new project, working on a production line, or discussing the care plan for a patient in hospital or a care home. With remote working and the increasing reach of technological connectivity, we lose sight of our social contributions and where our tasks (and we as humans) fit into the bigger collective effort and structure of an organisation. Even individual lone freelance workers find their own social spaces and forms of physical connectivity: meetings in coffee shops etc. Even chatting to friends about non-work matters adds to the social environments that affect us as humans.
In our research, a manager recounts that when dealing with employees using remote technology, both the task and the person both become viewed as a “very transient interaction where you kind of forget that it’s a person… because you don’t see them… It’s very easy to forget that there’s a person there”. She goes on to say that:
“There’s [not] much of a relationship… It’s very task-orientated. It’s like once you get the task done that’s it… Kind of like… [an] Uber driver I guess. They take you somewhere and then drop you off and then that’s it…. You never see them again”.
Voice and social dialogue
Technology to underwrite remote working can reduce the opportunities for voice and collective forms of social dialogue at a workplace. In other words, it’s easy for employers to de-unionise or weaken collective forms of representation as a countervailing power against employer abuse. In our research, one online freelancer explains:
“You can’t communicate [with other online freelancers] through the platform”. He goes on to say that “I think… [the DLP] probably keeps you all apart because… [of a] divide and conquer… mentality. If we could all talk to each other then we would probably pick and choose jobs and talk about clients and do all that kind of stuff which is probably what they don’t want”.
Remote working and reliance on DLPs means it is more difficult for trade unions to protect and support workers who are isolated, feeling physically disconnected from their colleagues and who may have issues with their employer. In our research, one online freelancer describes her life by saying:
“It’s a bit of a lonely world”. She goes on to say after recently having a baby “my priorities have shifted a bit… I take care of her all day and then I do this at night. I feel like I’m working three jobs”.
The need to support the voices of marginalised workers, such as women, black, Asian and minority ethnic and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and younger workers is more difficult given the issues of remote working.
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown light on both positive and negative aspects of homeworking. Through a ‘carry on working’ approach, workers have shown great resilience and resourcefulness in adapting to the challenges; demonstrating their commitment in the industries and sectors where it has been possible to do so. The responses in times of crisis might be fine as a short-term stopgap. But homeworking and new forms of remote employment, using technologies, should not be regarded as a panacea, at least in the long-term. Such a move to a home-based employment model is high risk and fraught with future of work tensions including intensification, work precarity and casualization, loneliness, digital presenteeism, lack of social interactions and limited, if any, employee voice. This raises doubts about the ‘new normal’ of homeworking post-crisis.
Mr Lee Stringer Alliance Manchester Business School – People, Management and Organisation Division, Work and Equalities Institute/ Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.
Dr Stephen Mustchin PMO Human Resource Mgmt, Employment Relations and Law/ Alliance Manchester Business School – People, Management and Organisation Division, Work and Equalities Institute/ Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.
Prof Tony Dundon Professor of HRM and Employment Relations, Department of Work and Employment Studies, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick; and Visiting Professor, Work and Equalities Institute, University of Manchester.