Seven risks of the ‘home working revolution’

Here at the Alex Ferry Foundation we are committed to researching, supporting and tracking any socioeconomic developments that may have implications for the future of work.

Unsurprisingly then, the impact that COVID19 has had on the working patterns and practices of millions of workers has been something we have been watching with interest.

Last month, we funded research looking at the real-time changes that were occurring within the manufacturing industries, with a view to capturing emergent best practice as well as identifying changes in the opinions, attitudes and desires of workers themselves.

The report itself was a snapshot, but it is important to consider its findings within the broader context of the structural changes that are reshaping the landscape of work at scale and at speed – not least the huge increase in home working.

Calls by government to ‘get back to the office’  are in many cases falling on deaf ears, with many individual workers keen to retain the newly acquired benefits of working from home, and many employers keen to retain the reduction in fixed overheads that accompany maintaining city centre offices.

In some senses, perhaps what we are witnessing is COVID19 acting as an accelerant; hastening changes to working patterns that have long been predicted by economists, academics and employers alike.

But even if this is the case, it remains the fact that the deserted city centres, eerie office blocks, empty commuter trains and mountains of uneaten Pret sandwiches have arrived sooner than anyone expected.

In the face of these rapid changes, various actors have been keen to extol the potential benefits of home working. And rightly so. After all, there is something genuinely progressive and prefigurative about changes that grant workers more autonomy over the precise manner in which they undertake their labour.

However, alongside the general positivity that surrounds home working – which generally focuses on increases in flexibility around working time, cost savings for the worker and a more equitable life/work balance – there remains a number of unresolved questions.

Because ultimately, the question of whether home working genuinely benefits the worker over the long term will be a something that is settled through contestation, vigilance and negotiation.

In that spirit then, here are seven questions that we are keen do not get lost amongst the clamour to hail home working as an unalloyed good. By keeping these risks (and others like them) at the forefront of our minds as we commission, research and negotiate over the coming months and years, we will greatly increase the chances of harnessing the genuinely transformative potential of the changes that are currently happening:

Are we alert enough to the psychological impact of ‘total work’?

What does it mean to grant your employer ever increasing access to your attention, your selfhood and your physical space in ways that stretch beyond the confines of the contracted wage labour relationship?

Or, to put it more bluntly, are you working at home, or are you living at work?

Are we risking reconceiving work solely from the perspective of the 9-5 office worker?

There is always a risk that in discussions around the future of work, academics, think-tanks and foundations extrapolate outwards from their own experience and end up presenting visions of the future, that while theoretically emancipatory, inadvertently ignore the realities of millions of workers.

COVID19 is a case in point. Around 60% of the country are already ‘back at work’, whether that be in factories, in logistics or in manufacturing … in fact, many of them never left.

Are we risking the further entrenchment of existing inequalities?

If you squint, it has been possible to see two very different pictures of home working emerge over the past few months. While some have relished being untethered from the relentless commutes and the petty indignities of office life, gleefully setting up home offices and enjoying their gardens, for many others it has been a totally different story.

In the midst of a housing crisis, with millions of people living in cramped, poorly maintained shared accommodation, working from home has meant sitting in a bedroom all day with a computer perched on their lap while waiting for their turn to use the shower.

If we don’t centre the experience and needs of those that are already structurally disadvantaged, we run the real risk of further deepening the inequities and indignities that are perpetuated by the existing economic settlement.

Are we erasing those for whom the home has always been a workplace?

As we look to shape a future where more people have access to good work, language matters.

Any theorisation of home working must acknowledge that for large swathes of the population, the domestic sphere has always been a place of labour. Whether that be via the vast array of work that gets undertaken in the home that goes unremunerated and unacknowledged by the market, or via the underpaid and often highly precarious work that cleaners, carers, and other domestic labourers undertake in the homes of others.

Are we underestimating the social role played by the workplace?

The potential death of the office can only truly be understood against the backdrop of the multi-decade hollowing out of civic institutions, communities of collective care and sites of associational life.

In the wake of that collapse, the workplace plays a vital role for many people who may otherwise find their interactions narrowly and distressingly circumscribed.

Non-peer sociality, spanning age groups, interests and ideologies often takes root within the workplace, with significant implications for the wellbeing of the individual and the wider community.

With that in mind, any large-scale changes to the structure of work should be accompanied by parallel demands for the revivification of participatory and solidaristic communities that sit outside of the wage labour relation.

Are we perpetuating an idealised notion of home and family life?

Much of the discussion about working from home has emphasised the role that it might play in redressing work/life balance in favour of the family.

While this is understandable, we should be careful to recognise that for many, the home is not a site of safety, security or happiness, but rather a space of danger, unrest, dissatisfaction and abuse.

COVID19 has already seen a worrying upsurge in reported cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the home, and any discussion about a more just future should be mindful of projecting normative ideals as they relate to the domestic and the familial.

Are we undermining organising and resistance?

A widespread move to home working will inevitably bring in its wake a raft of surveillant technologies designed to ensure that employers are able to continue to drive labour intensification, even from a distance.

As ever, any such change should be implemented only in conjunction with the consent and support of the workforce,  but in the likely absence of such goodwill, we should be vigilant about the impact that atomised homework might have on the ability of employees to collectively organise, negotiate and bargain over the ultimate conditions of their work.


 Keiran Goddard

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