Working from home has reinforced inequalities – how can we use it to improve lives instead? | John harris

IOmicron did it. Until early December, office workers in England seemed to return to their desks on a regular basis. But once the new variant arrived, a change that had been taking shape since the start of the Covid crisis suddenly felt overwhelming. Return-to-office hours have been scrapped, more companies have announced long-term plans for what’s known as a hybrid employment division between homes and workplaces, and it was there: a quiet revolution, the consequences of which will unfold over the next year and beyond.

Home and hybrid work has been embraced by a long list of tech companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Spotify, and dozens of others. Something similar seems to be happening in the financial industry. In the United Kingdom, 18 m² of office space has been vacated since the start of the pandemic. In the past year, in places like Derby, Southampton and the London Borough of Brent, around 20% of offices have been decommissioned, and there are projections that by 2027 a UK office out of 10 will no longer be needed. .

Despite all the government’s wishful thinking about an imminent return to pre-Covid normality, it looks like a profound change that defines the era. Talk to people about unions and you will get a feeling of a new frontier that requires urgent and careful attention. At the Unite union, for example, they are working on a detailed model of work-at-home agreements, designed to minimize the risk of isolation, “stress and depression” and “work-related health and safety risks. in an unsuitable environment ”. So far, however, any political debate about what’s going on has boiled down to just another episode of the Culture Wars. The right seems to see any distance from the traditional workplace as a deadly threat to both the economy and our moral well-being, while more liberal voices glimpse something almost utopian: the liberation of commuting, productivity. increased, more time with family. What both sides tend to ignore are the huge issues of inequality, what the job really involves, and how large companies too often try to offload their responsibilities and risks onto fragile individuals.

For starters, only a minority of us are actually able to work from home (WFH). In April 2020, the Office for National Statistics put the figure at 46%, although the number varied widely across the UK: 57% of Londoners said they were able to do at least some work at home, while the figure in the West Midlands was 35%. Against this backdrop, even as working from home introduces some of those who do it into a romance of self-reliance and holistic living, it threatens to make the class divisions the pandemic has widened both permanent and enormous.

Other questions relate to people who now do at least some of their work not far from where they sleep. If you live alone, the WFH may well represent both a degree of freedom and a wrenching away from human interaction. For young people at the start of their working life, not being in an office will probably cause two types of inconvenience: being cut off from collective work experiences that allow them to find their professional marks, and not having the domestic space to do their work. effectively. It goes without saying that there is clear evidence of how traditional gender roles affect working from home: In a US study conducted by management consultants McKinsey, 79% of men said they felt an ‘effective positive work ”at home, compared to only 37% of women. . Whoever you are, by the way, there’s a good chance the WFH has increased your hours: Research during the world’s first lockdown found that for 3 million teleworkers worldwide, the average working day increased by 8.2%, or nearly 50 minutes. .

American writers Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen recently published Out of Office, a comprehensive yet very readable book on the pros and cons of working from home. Her central claim, based in part on their experience leaving office jobs in New York City and attempting a new life in Montana, is that remote working can “get you out of the wheel of constant productivity,” as well as transform yourself into “a best friend and partner”. The big problem, they say, is that far too many employers have quickly built a model of working from home on work cultures that emphasize long hours, the kind of camaraderie that quickly becomes overwhelming, and close supervision. of what people are doing. They quote the actor Kevin Farzad’s observation that “if an employer one day says, ‘we are like a family here’, what he means is that he is going to ruin you psychologically”. Let these attitudes enter people’s home environment and you risk “the total collapse of work-life balance.”

To understand this point, forget about any sight of powerful people flitting between town and country and having Zoom meetings in their summer homes. Instead, think about the work of call centers, which was pushed into people’s homes long before the pandemic. Here you not only see the links to be made between working from home and bogus self-employment, but a new world of remote worker surveillance. In March of last year, the Guardian reported on multinational call center company Teleperformance and the software built around webcams in homeworkers’ laptops. “If the system does not detect any keystrokes and no mouse clicks, it will show you inactive for that particular amount of time, and this will be reported to your supervisor,” one set of instructions said.

“If you don’t talk about power in the workplace, you won’t be successful,” says Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of the white-collar union Prospect. From this basic point everything follows. We focus on working from home, when we should really start with flexibility: wherever they work, the ability for people to start and end at a time of their choice, to book themselves time off and making sure the vacation complements other aspects of their life. Companies should pay much more attention to the needs of new hires – pairing them with dedicated mentors, ensuring they have the flexibility to spend all or most of their working hours in a workplace , allowing them to join a union. For all employees there should be both a right to collective representation and the type of right to disconnect – not having to deal with emails, calls and messages outside of working hours – which has been adopted in France, Italy and Spain, and is now provisionally supported – for public sector staff at least – by the SNP-led government in Edinburgh.

Somewhere in all of this could be the start of home and hybrid work that could actually improve people’s lives. The danger of the tired, punch-drunk mood of early 2022 is that indifference and fatalism will set in, and we will eventually become sleepwalks in a post-pandemic reality that no one wants. Amidst grief, disruption, and huge changes in our daily experiences, the future has arrived: not just work, but every other aspect of life it touches. When do we start to do something about it?

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