Professor Abigail Marks, Professor of Work and Employment, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling
Abigail Marks explores the impact that COVID-19 has had on patterns of home working, and what this might mean for the future of home working practices.
Watch the lecture online or read the transcript below.
Hello. I am Abigail Marks and I’m a Professor of work and employment in Stirling Management School, and I am going to spend the next ten minutes talking to you about COVID-19 and home working.
This presentation is occurring in the middle of June, so I am very aware that things are changing rapidly over time but, nonetheless, I’m going to take a little look at the history of home working in order to understand whether the home working experience will change or be developed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I will produce significant change in the location of work and attitudes towards home working.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2019, only 5 percent of the UK labour force work from home most of the time with a quarter of employees having some experience of home working. At the current time, with all but key workers confined to the house, estimates indicate within the European Union, 40 percent of workers are based from home and in the UK number is between about 30 and 40 percent of the working population. As a consequence, both experts and the popular media are suggesting that COVID-19, is going to herald a shift away from the office and that organisations and individuals are going to have to adapt to employees being more frequently based from home. In fact, larger organizations such as Google, Twitter and Facebook have stated explicitly that home working will becoming a permanent fixture for many, if not most of their employees. This over the last few weeks has been very clearly documented within the media.
Advantages versus disadvantages
While most of us appreciate the reduction in commute and the ability to video conference wearing a pyjama bottoms, there are a number of disadvantages to home working. Aside from the current pressures of home working and schooling, at the same time, frequently a heavier burden for women. Trade unions are rightly concerned that employees working from home will fail to switch off from work and that home working puts an additional pressure on household finances in terms of acquiring new equipment, household utility bills and ensuring that broadband is optimised. Indeed, from my current research project, we have identified that less than 50 percent of organizations are actually providing employees with appropriate equipment. Thus there is clearly going to be a burden on employees when working from home. Let’s have a quick look at the history of home working. In reality, home working was the norm for most people, for most of the documented period of history.
A brief history of home working
It was really only from the 17th century that people started working away from the home. And this really started with the new professions such as lawyers also including people like civil servants, when particularly in capital cities such as London, Amsterdam and Paris, there became the first distinction between the office, which was associated with work and the home which was associated with comfort, intimacy, familiarity and safety.
Yet despite these early officers, working from home was the reality for most people really until the industrial revolution. Most families, until this point worked on adjoining land undertaking localised agricultural work or a small craft industries within the house. It’s really only when wide-scale industrialization occurred that work for the many moved from the domestic sphere and the size and location of a person’s office became a symbol of success.
So, let’s look at when people started mooting the idea of large swathes of the population returning to home working. The first considered move back to home working was really in the 70s and 80s when the potential for mobile technology was starting to be developed, suggesting that home working would, over time, be a possibility for many. As we’ve heard under COVID during this period of time, the same thoughts about the potential for home work and the benefits of home working were articulated so that less commuting would reduce Western capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels, allow the revitalisation of local neighbourhoods with people living and working within what would become commuter zones, and we have some thriving communities of home workers with young families in areas which are pretty much deserted during the day. There was also a move at this time believing that women who, working from home, could retain their careers thanks to much more flexible regimes of homeplace employment.
Indeed, one early adopter and very successful adopter of home based working with the software company F International, F standing for Female, which organised work on a remote basis from the outset. Interestingly enough, F International has a very, very strong Scottish history with the very iconic Ann Budge being one of the founders of the Edinburgh office.
Yet, despite some of these pioneering home working arrangements and indeed the very, very well-intentioned ideas of companies like F International, the IT sector in particular, also used teleworking as a mechanism for eroding employment rights by putting people on contracts rather than making them employees and therefore cutting wage bills for the organization, but also putting the responsibility for health and safety, pensions, sickbay and maternity benefits on the employees themselves. Indeed, this change in terms of conditions is also a threat for the post-COVID homeworkers with, for example, love U.S. multinationals, often tech-based organisations who are suggesting a more permanent home base working model also suggesting imposed pay reductions as they believe they will no longer be a need to live in high cost areas such as Silicon Valley and the salary premium paid for living in these areas would no longer be required.
Indeed, those female Tele workers and home workers who were supposed to reap the benefits of home working were in fact the group that were most often disadvantaged by home working. Women typically are less likely to have a dedicated workspace, and this is something that we found during the pandemic, that women are frequently having to share workspace with the children, whereas the partner often has his own workspace. Women often have the majority share of childcare, even those working having full time employment. For home working more historically, women generally received lower salaries when working from home than if they were based in the office – a model that large organizations are seeking to replicate. In particular, for women without reliable or indeed any childcare, there is frequently the choice between poor pay and conditions associated through remote working or having no formal employment at all.
It’s not only diminished terms and conditions that is something that home workers face, but also there’s a very genuine risk to well-being. Look at the 2014 European Working Conditions survey. It was found that 40 percent of mobile workers or home workers felt stressed most of the time, compared to 25 percent who are solely based on their employer’s premises. And of these home workers, 42 percent demonstrated having problems with sleep, compared to 29 percent of those that don’t mobile work at all. As we all know from the COVID situation that 40 percent of us at home working find the temptation to look at your mobile device even when lying in bed, which is where it’s often said that is very, very tempting. Also, as the 40 percent of us now working from home know, that contacting colleagues to keep projects moving, train to undertake conference calls when you’re surrounded by children, barking dogs and deliveries at the door is really not as easy as it sounds.
While also organisations will clearly benefit from not having to fund and service large scale office buildings, the organisation itself potentially confronts disadvantages of working. Much research has noted that you can’t develop team culture at a distance, particularly for new employees when the majority of employees are working from home. Data cannot be held securely or as securely as it can when people are based in an office building and there is often a reported decrease in satisfaction from clients with perception of customer service. There’s also potential concerns about productivity.
Like it or not, COVID has changed the world, and what we really need to understand are the costs and benefits of home working both under COVID measures and for the future. Have technology and attitudes advanced sufficiently to make working from home truly viable for the majority? I am lucky to be involved with the “working a home” project with colleagues from the Management School of Stirling University, and we are focussing on the experience of working under the lockdown and over the months following on from the lockdown.
We are following 60 individuals throughout the 14 months from lockdown, as well as undertaking a survey of the broader population at the start of lockdown, during lockdown, and a year later. We have at the moment some initial results just focussing on the lockdown period we have found that two out of three of our respondents have the challenge of showing their home working space with other family members. Over half our respondents perceived that there was inadequacy in terms of support from the organization for their home work arrangements, and another significant finding was over half our respondents found that whilst relationships with family were strengthened, over a third felt that there has been a significant increase in conflict within the family. This is frequently due to the management of multiple people working, including home schooling, and that there has been an additional burden on women to help around the house.
So, what we really want to find out is what the future holds. Is there going to be an improvement in support by organisations for home workers, both in the short term and in the longer term? Does the socio-economic status of our new home workers impact on the experience? Do families with smaller houses and less income have a more negative experience than home working than those with larger domestic space? Do those people with caring responsibilities have a better or worse experience of home working? Does it help balance or do they feel stressed and distracted? How does home working impact on the physical and emotional well-being of people, excluding the fact that COVID-19 has caused additional stress across the board, is the specifics of home working further stressing individuals? Do employees actually want to work from home in the longer term?
We found that most people we have spoken to like going into the office, but do like the idea of working at home as well, so would indeed appreciate greater flexibility. Finally, for those people that are returning to the office, how are they going to cope if and when they return to the office?
Thank you very much.