Are we enjoying working at home freedoms, or are we living at work? That is the discussion increasingly informing the experience of the last six months, accentuated by the UK government’s “shift in emphasis” last week. The implications of renewed home working advice for the spread of the virus are unknowable at this stage, and we can only hope that the updated guidance will be sufficient to keep the infection rate under control. But the consequences for work and for workers are stark – and have not been given anything like enough attention by the government or wider society. We are about to enter a whole new era of permanent remote working, and we are simply not ready for what that means.
For those workers who have been able to work from home, the experience of the pandemic so far has been a mixed bag. The clear conveniences of working from your living room have been balanced against new trade-offs and inequalities. People with young children, or who live in cramped flats, will have had a very different experience from their colleagues who are not in this position. The way people are managed has also made a difference. Polling we commissioned from YouGov shows that remote workers are evenly split between those who feel that there has been too much supervision from managers and those who feel there has not been enough.
But this first phase of remote working has been defined by the haste in which we entered it. Employers scrambled to switch to a remote posture, assuming it might last for a few weeks or months before a return to ‘business as usual’. This next phase is going to be different as employers are now thinking in terms of a semi-permanent future of remote or ‘blended’ working. Right now, employers are considering the introduction of a range of new monitoring technologies that can keep tabs on their employees while they work remotely. The consequence will be an experience of working from home unlike anything most workers have experienced so far, and I fear that unless something changes we could be heading for a new dystopia where work invades people’s homes and workers are subject to constant monitoring and supervision.
The really scary thing is that workers do not know that this is coming. Our polling asked remote workers if they had heard of some of the most common monitoring technologies. Only one third had heard of keystroke monitoring, where employers can check how often you are typing, and the same number had heard of software that allows employers to use cameras on work computers to monitor how much time you spend ‘at your desk’. Only a quarter had heard of new electronic tracking that checks when you are logged on to your email, or even where you are. When they do hear about this, opposition is predictably strong. Two thirds would be uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring, which rises to three quarters for tracking software and up to 80% for cameras.
The opposition is strongest among young workers, which is not surprising when you consider that many are working out of bedrooms in small flats. Who would want their boss to have a permanent camera in their bedroom? And workers are right to be apprehensive. This technology is new and there is very little regulation around its use. While some employers will proceed with caution, consulting staff and trade unions about how to handle this next phase, many more will take advantage of the lack of regulation and the fact that employees are desperate to stay in work to implement sweeping surveillance that will making working from home a nightmare.
A future of remote or blended working does not have to be this dystopian. I firmly believe that most workers would welcome the flexibility as long as they have a voice and some control over what that system will look like. Government guidance is driving this change, and it needs to get a grip of the problem fast. Law and workers’ rights need to catch up with these technologies, with a proper ‘right to disconnect’ from work – as exists in other countries – alongside new rights to be consulted on technological change in your workplace.
Where unions like Prospect exist, we will be a voice for the workforce and negotiate for a balance that preserves workers’ dignity and rights while allowing businesses to function and survive the pandemic. But in the large sections of the economy where there are no unions, particularly the private sector, there will be little to stop employers from acting unilaterally. I have often heard it said that many white-collar workers do not need trade unions. It may seem strange, but a future of mass working from home may just be the thing that shows that they do more than ever.