Despite continued efforts to pretend otherwise, the new reality for many is work-from-home.
During the period of January to December 2019, 5.1% of the UK population mainly worked from home, compared to 4.3% in 2015 reported by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The sector with the highest proportion of homeworkers was information and communication was in information and communication, with 14% mainly working from home in 2019, and more than half of workers having ever worked from home.
In terms of homeworking patterns, reported by the ONS, those who occupied the most senior roles such as managers, directors, and senior officers were most likely to work from home (10%), followed by those in associate professional and technical occupations (8%) and administrative duties (6%).
Before COVID-19, we might have speculated that women would form the majority of the home workforce, however according to the ONS, it was men (11%) who were more than twice as likely to work from home compared to women (5%).
With home working now the ‘norm’ for many professionals does this mean a radical shake-up concerning industry initiatives to support a more accessible and inclusive workforce? Or are separate professional conditions continuing to prevail in the home?
First reported by Forbes, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Slack, Microsoft and newly familiar Zoom have implemented new work regimes to allow employees to continue to work from home for the remainder of 2020. For those in the tech sector remote working methods are more familiar than other industries less confident or invested in software to support digital interactions. Prior to COVID-19 remote working practices within the tech sector could have been seen as innovations for other organisations and industry to adopt. However, today, we risk conflating ‘remote working’ with the present conditions of being forced to work from home, which is entirely different concerning support, accessibility and skills.
My long-term research investigates the challenges of remote working within the tech sector and opportunities for companies to implement change for a more inclusive workforce. Part of what the tech sector, and others, is dealing with are the opportunities for workplace support. During the most recent interviews with workers, there is anger about the form of support that is mostly self-directed online learning to identity stress areas or take workers through basic meditation exercises. Speaking to workers in the civil service, similar methods of support have been introduced through lock-down. There is a significant tension here between top-down ‘support’ and what is really needed on the ground. Though early days, there are some clearly identifiable themes coming out the current work-from-home conditions:
Proper investment in staff training that is accessible to all workers. One senior manager shared his experience of being the primary carer for his daughter. He was unable to attend online training days where he lacked childcare support at home. Obstacles to being able to attend event is not new where there are caring roles involved. One positive spin out of the pandemic is the opening up of previously locked down events/meetings/conferences. Through digital tech, I’ve been able to attend a virtual parliamentary civic briefing; participate in a conference previously out of my reach due to cost/travel/caring responsibilities; benefit from cybersecurity online training; and vote in union elections. What is frustrating is it has taken the restriction of workers to force this opening up, when the same level of accessibility could have been championed and supported a long time ago. What I hope is post-COVID-19 the same level of access will remain.
Agile professional needs support. By necessity we are spending a substantial proportion of our day in front of screens. Mental health ‘check-ins’ and wellbeing tools are predominantly conducted through the screen. While technology enables immediate contact, it does not allow periods of rest or disconnection unless the user is able to put these in place. Speaking to an HR director, she shared her technology fatigue. Where the company had invested in a staff wellbeing app, this meant more time in front a screen sharing personal details about sleep patterns and sense of self-worth. Such investment attends to some of the needs of the workforce – if they are interested in sleep tracking. However, it does very little for supporting new work patterns, roles and fatigue.
Households are the new workforce. Where organisations have a contract with an individual concerning their duties and responsibilities, this does not translate easily into households. Inevitably different burdens of care and ways of working entrench the home. What is clear from recent media reports and speaking to individuals across sectors in the UK are the difficulties in finding routines, especially when there are caring responsibilities for loved ones within the home. A not uncommon experience is feeling overwhelmed by professional tasks and spiraling out of control from ways to sustain relationships in the home. My own experience echoes that of many, caring for my four-year old daughter, working FT, contributing and running a household without the time and space to perform properly in any of these areas. Let alone download an app and record my sleep-tracking. The acknowledgement here is while individuals are employed by an organisation, it is the household that configures how we can conduct our professional roles at home.
Different career enhancement pathways. One of the main challenges now is dealing with the ‘unknown’. One area of growing unease and concern are the new barriers to career progression. This is particularly the case where workers are being asked to prioritise new areas of work, such as the generation of online content, over and above all other tasks. And while online training can provide a great deal of information about ‘how things work’, it is very difficult for those tools to positively enhance different ways of working, especially if those duties are not formally recognised within career pathways and promotion criteria. The push to ‘get online’ takes time, new skills and requires the proper recognition of what the end product should look and feel like.
[not] Taking time off. Simply put, stating that workers should use their annual leave won’t alone change the conditions of stress, fatigue and fear. In short, while the required ‘leave’ can be recorded on an excel spreadsheet this does not reflect a period of rest for the individual. For others, it will not be possible to use their leave allowance. This is not about giving people ‘special treatment’, but acknowledging the current conditions that are difficult and in acknowledging this, understanding each other in terms of these being hard times for all.
During the crisis, I continue to research the impact of remote working. Yet, this is with a growing unease, as I recognise and share the same challenges as those I interview. However, in deepening this narrative, we can underscore the sharp divide between work-from-home and remote working. To ease the burden of remote work and enable new innovative ways of working in the future, this requires a plethora of change, investment and support beyond the household.