To paraphrase a popular definition of love attributed to Marcel Proust, work is space and time measured by economic necessity. Where work takes place, and how it is timed, derives from the economic make-up of a society. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown ideas of workplace and working time into disarray in many parts of the world. A ‘return to normal’ is unlikely even when the pandemic recedes.
Both the workplace and working time in the age of Covid-19 are cast into relief by the current policy debate over home-working in Germany. This has important lessons for a ‘new social deal over work’.
After months of heated exchange over the regulation of home-working, senior figures on 19 January 2021 agreed on a temporary legislative solution. Most significantly, the agreement obliges employers to offer home-working to workers unless compelling commercial reasons prohibit it.
But the agreement fails to resolve many of the underlying points of contestation that have fuelled the political debate. Since the autumn of 2020, competing resolutions and legislative drafts have floated concrete regulatory responses to the shift towards home-working accelerated by the pandemic. Both the proposed responses themselves and their wider implications merit closer attention, in particular changing ideas of workplace and working time.
Rethinking the workplace
A contentious aspect the newly legislated duty on employers leaves unanswered is how the idea of the workplace may be rethought. How might the lack of personal contact between co-workers, and the social isolation and detachment from work processes that may result from it, be countered? How should the burden of home-working expenses and the risk of work-related injury be distributed between workers, employers and the state?
The most notable response to changing workplace realities has been proposed by the Christian Democrats, who envisage state support for local co-working spaces, particularly in rural areas. Under these plans, ‘municipalities, clubs, churches, multi-generational homes’ and other private and public institutions would be incentivised to create co-working spaces with ‘good broadband’ and the possibility of ‘flexible childcare and elderly care’. With a view to informal exchange, a range of virtual replacements of coffee breaks, chit-chat before and after meetings and other moments of personal connection will exist. This will be facilitated by the extension of tax relief for home office expenses to include rooms not used exclusively for working.
These concrete adjustments seek to retain the privileges of employment under the conditions of a global pandemic, but they also hold a transformative potential. From an environmental perspective, a lower number of commuters translates into a reduction in harmful emissions. Meaningful support for co-working spaces in rural areas could begin to counter the exodus of young and university-educated workers into the cities. Trade unions could engage with workers whom they cannot otherwise reach. Both in urban and rural areas, an increase in co-working spaces spanning across organisations and professions could further strengthen community ties and revitalise public space. These effects would be particularly marked if community activities and public services were thoughtfully integrated into local co-working hubs.
Changing conceptions of working time
Besides traditional ideas of the workplace, the pandemic has also put considerable pressure on the dominant concept of working time. The boundaries between work and private life have become ever more blurred if work potentially starts when we stumble into the kitchen in the morning and stops only when we have jotted down one last thought on a work project before going to bed. While some studies suggest that home-working can improve mental health outcomes and family cohesion, particularly in the case of male workers, there are also indications that working from home encourages people to work harder and take fewer breaks.
The German debate on home-working has produced three different approaches to these ongoing shifts in the nature of working time. The Ministry of Labour has emphasised that particular care should be taken when registering the working time of home-workers, so as to adhere to working time restrictions and minimise ‘work that is carried out during time off – and is thus unregistered and unpaid’. The Ministry’s proposed solution is to reiterate the existing employer duty fully to register the working time of its workforce, including through digital means, and the threat (unlikely in practice) of labour inspections. The Green Party has favoured a greater emphasis on protecting workers from surveillance, which includes overly intrusive technologies of working time registration. Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats have suggested that home-workers may opt out of the existing working time restrictions in the same way that other ‘immaterial’ workers – namely in academia – already can. All parties have further endorsed a right to disconnect.
These proposals do not, however, address the fundamental challenge to existing conceptions of working time that a further increase in home-working is likely to pose. The last paragraph of the Christian Democrat resolution hints at the magnitude of the challenge: an ‘experimentation clause’, which under certain conditions allows ‘divergences of up to 5 years from all federal regulation of working arrangements’, is thought to provide insights into appropriate future models of work. How such divergences are designed, monitored and assessed will be crucial.
As for transformative potentials, if the registration of working time becomes ever more difficult the focus of work may shift further towards outcomes. Presenteeism is arguably the most vivid illustration of an excessive social emphasis on working time, regardless of the work performed during that time. Instead, efficiency might – within healthy limits – be valued more by workers themselves if getting work done more quickly does not lead to a higher workload or reduced pay. A shorter working week, with levels of pay unaffected, could ensure that this is the case.
The future of home-working and the risk of entrenched exclusions
Any idea of the future is necessarily shaped by present assumptions and blind spots. The same is true of today’s interest in home-working, which is often seen as a glimpse into the future world of work. From the employment debates that have emerged since the onset of the pandemic, one might be fooled into thinking that working from home in the pre-Covid world was the exclusive domain of skilled professionals in industrialised countries. But working from home is a much older practice; women, but also children have been delegated to informal, casual work since the early phases of industrialisation. It was only over the past four decades that the discourse on home-working has increasingly shifted away from the low-paid, informal work mostly performed by those in disadvantaged social locations, often in the Global South, towards relatively privileged ‘telecommuters’, ‘knowledge workers’ and ‘digital nomads’ in industrialised countries.
If we foreground a future in which office workers flock to pleasantly decorated co-working hubs in their local communities, many groups of workers are left out of the picture. Many of those who cannot work remotely because of the nature of their work – be it care work, food processing or cleaning – are precisely the workers whose services have been called ‘essential’ to the functioning of societies during lockdown. They seem more likely to have lower levels of income and qualifications, and women are overrepresented in many such occupations. Moreover, female workers have thus far been more likely than male workers to reduce their paid working time and to see their share of care work increase. It is crucial that a visionary new social deal over work finds a place for workers who cannot work remotely, and pushes back against the ongoing retraditionalisation of gender roles. Existing and potential privileges for essential workers, such as prioritised access to childcare and vaccination, can pave the way – while a social negotiation over what is essential work might reshape how we think about economic necessity.
Moritz Neugebauer is an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent, UK.