The mandatory, full-time use of working from home during the pandemic marks a radical change. Prior to 2020, homeworking was a voluntary work practice, agreed by workers and employers, and for part-time or occasional working hours. With no previous framework that protects employees, the tensions and contradictions in the experience of home working mean it is now time to reappraise government policy and business practice to ensure this new way of working is working for everyone. My research has found deep rooted contradictions in homeworking that require a policy response especially regarding how to regulate hybrid working and ensure best practice.
Firstly, a key potential benefit associated with working from home is its potential to enable workers ‘to exercise greater choice and control over their working hours’. Evidence has shown that this can improve individual and organisational performance, as well as individual wellbeing, especially if working time flexibility is incorporated into a wider system of family-friendly workplace practices.
However, for many people who work from home, greater autonomy is locked in tension with the enhanced technological surveillance at the disposal of employers to monitor worker activities in order to maintain productivity. This raises major questions about intrusion of privacy and autonomy with products that log the frequency of keyboard use, apps and mouse clicks, track login times and physical movement entering the mainstream since the pandemic.
Policy must therefore ensure employers evaluate their practices to comply with the legal framework, to respect workers’ right to their own data and their right to dignity and privacy at work, especially when conducted in their private home.
Secondly, The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new divide between jobs that can be done at home and those that cannot, heralding a new type of inequality. Research consistently shows that workers who were least likely to benefit from the opportunity to work from home during the global pandemic were those in the most disadvantaged forms of employment – namely, jobs that were low paid, precarious, informal or required low education. Moreover, workers in jobs without the possibility of homeworking were also more likely to live in a poor household.
This is in contrast to the very high share of jobs suitable for home working in high paying sectors such as finance and insurance, ICT, professional services and public administration. The distribution of workers into jobs with or without the potential for homeworking and therefore with or without health and income protection, is unequal. To counteract this, future policy should be strengthened to allow for inclusive and effective collective bargaining, invest in proactive reskilling, regularly uprate the statutory minimum wage and improve the real value of welfare benefits for those in work.
Finally, despite the clear protective benefits of telework during the global pandemic, we now know it has had a detrimental effect on working mothers by exacerbating gender inequalities in who does the unpaid domestic and care work.
This raises wider questions post-COVID-19 about how to promote flexible working with gender equality. Across Europe, working mothers are doing more housework and spending more time caring for children and other family dependants than before the pandemic. Also, a rising share of mothers who work remotely report increased family stress amidst an increase in domestic and care work. Therefore, post-COVID-19 policy must embrace a transformative agenda for gender equality and place it at the core of policies for inclusive development. This agenda includes ensuring that all women can access affordable childcare, that women enjoy the same opportunities as men to jobs in diverse sectors, including promotions to better paid jobs, and that women’s interests are at the centre of negotiations between employers and trade unions in reshaping the forms of flexible working.