Workplace Report (May 2021)


Setting homework’s future

Covid-19 affected everyone’s working lives. Now, as lockdown restrictions start to ease, everything could change again. To coincide with the release of LRD’s new booklet, Negotiating the new homeworking landscape, we look at some of the key issues many of us will face in the post-pandemic world – and how reps can ensure it is a safe and fair environment

The transformation of office work in the pandemic has been seismic. Last month the Office for National Statistics released data showing that the number of people who worked from home increased from around a quarter (27%) in 2019 to over a third (36%) last year.

As lockdown eases there is little doubt that many workers will not return to the traditional nine to five model, as they have successfully shown that the great homeworking experiment instigated by the instruction to stay at home in March 2020 can work. According to the Universities of Cardiff and Southampton’s study Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown, two-fifths of respondents said they were able to get as much work done from home and over a quarter said they were able to get more done.

Many workers have said they would like to continue with some form of homeworking post-lockdown. The benefits of remote working for the employee are extensive, including saving time and money on commuting, greater freedom to organise their day, and being able to work with no distractions. But the employer has a lot to gain too — not only can they save costs on office space but they are also able to recruit from further afield, and potentially gain from higher levels of productivity.

But there are many other factors to consider. The preliminary findings of the Covid-19 and working from home survey released by the Scottish TUC revealed a very mixed picture of people’s experiences, with winners and losers over the past year.

ILO guidance on homeworking

Unions may find the International Labour Organization (ILO) advice on effective remote working useful when negotiating. Its document Teleworking during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond: a practical guide includes the following points:

Management support – from top management to frontline supervisors. The ILO advises identifying objectives, tasks, and milestones, and then monitoring and discussing progress without overly burdensome reporting requirements. When there are issues with schools closing and lack of childcare, workers’ targets should be changed to recognise this.

Appropriate tools and training. This includes having access to appropriate equipment, such as laptops and apps for teleworking, adequate tech support, and training for both managers and teleworkers. Staying connected will help reduce social isolation.

Clear expectations. Everyone should know what teleworkers are expected to achieve, their conditions of employment, hours of contactability, how to monitor progress and report results. It is essential to know when workers are or are not available for work – and then respect those rules.

Time sovereignty. Telework can offer workers the flexibility to do their work at the times and in the places that are most convenient for them, while remaining contactable during the normal business hours of the organisation.

A boundary management strategy. Teleworkers need to be able to divide paid work and personal life. This should include a dedicated workspace free from disruptions, and the ability to disconnect from work at specified times.

Trust. The ILO describes this as the “glue” that holds it all together. Managers, teleworkers, and their colleagues need to trust each other.

STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “The experiences of working from home and attitudes toward future homeworking are very varied. Significant numbers of workers have experienced work intensification and stress over the past year, yet for many others the overall experience has been positive.”

She warned against blanket changes to work arrangements or sweeping office closures: “A key conclusion is that many workers are positive about some degree of future homeworking, but this must be optional, flexible and only undertaken through negotiation.”

Several studies so far indicate that workers and organisations seem most supportive of a hybrid working model, with the workforce splitting their time between working remotely and coming into the office.

For example, the Work smart to live better report by software giant Microsoft in collaboration with the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that workers are happier working from home but also want the social interaction allowed by an office. Many miss seeing their colleagues in person, and the opportunity for social interaction is a key driver for people’s decision to go into the office when guidelines allow. When it is safe to return to the office, 62% said they wanted to do so to work with colleagues, and almost a third (32%) would do so to socialise in person.

Equality of access

The option to homework is not evenly distributed across the workforce. Working from home has always been a privilege mainly enjoyed by the professional occupations, and it was no different during the pandemic.

Research by think tank the Resolution Foundation found that, during the first 2020 lockdown, just 44% of the lowest paid workers were working from home, compared to 83% of the highest paid.

There is concern that this split between high and low paid workers will continue once restrictions are fully lifted. A report by charity Working Families found that only 29% of the lowest paid workers expect to work from home more in future, compared to 60% of the highest paid. To address this, the report called for legislation creating a duty on employers to advertise vacancies flexibly. The charity said this would help parents and carers who have lost their jobs back into work and, crucially, unlock flexibility in all roles, helping to ensure the pandemic’s flexible working legacy is available more widely.

Following a Welsh government report into the future of remote working, the Wales TUC called for the government to ensure that its drive to support it does not reinforce existing class inequalities in the labour market. The union body said any investment in home or remote working should be matched with investment in helping those who can’t do their job from home. This could include measures such as subsidised public transport costs, engaging workers in the best locations for nurseries and after-school clubs, or even altering school catchment areas.

Meanwhile, previous research carried out by the Labour Research Department found that, while many union reps reacted positively to the prospect of more homeworking in the post-pandemic world, they also fear it might become compulsory, leading to premises being scaled down and ultimately jobs lost.

Once restrictions are fully lifted, unions will be working to ensure that employees do not have work locations imposed on them, whether that means in the office or at home. Any shift to long-term homeworking requires proper consultation. For most employees, this is likely to involve a change to a core contract term — work location — and should be done by agreement (see box).

Compulsion: the law

Employers have no general right to make people work from home unless it is specified in the employment contract. Anyone who switches to homeworking must do so by agreement. This is, of course, different if the employee has been recruited with a homeworking component agreed in their contract.

Sometimes the employment contract contains a term that purports to allow the employer to compel a change in work location, known as a “mobility” or “relocation” clause. Reps who are faced with an employer that relies on a mobility clause to force through a change to homeworking should take legal advice from their union, as each case will depend on its own facts.

Employers considering a shift to homeworking should begin with an equality impact assessment in consultation with a recognised union. There are obvious risks of discrimination. For example, in general, younger workers are less likely to be living in accommodation suitable for homeworking and to have more to lose, in terms of learning and career development, than a more experienced co-worker.

Any changes, once agreed, must be made with adequate notice, and the arrangement must enable the employee to carry out the work they are meant to do, for example by providing all necessary equipment at no cost to the employee.

A compulsory shift from office to home affecting 20 or more employees is likely to trigger an employer’s statutory duty to consult collectively with the recognised union (section 188, Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992). Failure to consult properly, and to consider issues raised by the union could result in a protective award.

If homeworking is presented as a compulsory arrangement, union advice should be sought.

The Santander example

In March 2021, an agreement was struck between the CWU communication workers’ union and Santander bank which the union says will preserve jobs and avoid compulsory redundancies as Santander announces an unprecedented rationalisation of its property estate.

Crucially, the union says the agreement gives employees genuine choice over their futures as the bank moves to a predominantly homeworking operating model for those affected by the changes announced to its property estate.

Under the complete rethink of pre-pandemic working arrangements, four of the bank’s major head office buildings will be closing completely. New “dual location” contracts will be introduced to allow the majority of employees in closing and consolidating sites to work mainly from home, but with regular attendances at a nearby “collaboration hub”. Meanwhile, the interests of those who simply cannot work from home have also been protected by an agreed process to ensure that office space is prioritised for those with exceptional circumstances.

Unions also warn of the danger that full-time remote working and hybrid working could exclude home-based workers from decisions and opportunities.

If hybrid working is to be successful, organisations must ensure that a two-tier workforce does not emerge, with home-based workers missing out on opportunities. To address this, remote working has to be fully integrated into an organisation’s future planning strategy.

Homeworkers should be informed of all job opportunities that come up within their organisation. They should be treated just the same as office-based staff and be given regular staff appraisals, training and personal development opportunities, and be considered for promotions.

The Work smarter to live better report calls on line managers to ensure that all employees are treated equally by also providing:

• recorded training and development sessions, so that employees are able to catch-up at a time that suits them;

• ways for homeworkers to be more visible by, for example, getting them to chair meetings, lead on projects or run virtual presentations; and

• opportunities for digital training courses and qualifications which can be accessed by remote and homeworkers as well as the office-based workforce.

Connecting with members

Social interactions have suffered as a result of remote working, and the opportunities for a union rep to connect with members and find out what is going on in different parts of the organisation have become much more difficult.

Connecting well with a remote workforce needs technology, and reps should try and ensure they can use their organisation’s existing communication platforms, since their members will already be logging onto these.

However, it will be crucial to ensure that any communication is confidential and that no monitoring takes place.

In order to fulfil their role representing remote workers, reps should:

• continue to use emails, but avoid sending lots of separate messages. If possible, limit to once a week;

• consider using WhatsApp as an informal way to connect groups of workers;

• use instant messaging and video software for collaborative work; and

• consider ways that members can contact them anonymously if necessary.

A policy should make it clear that homeworkers still have access to union representation and set out how this will be achieved. Ideally, homeworkers should be able to attend meetings in working hours, with union reps and health and safety advisors able to visit them in their homes.

It is important that there are no obstacles in the way of reps communicating with homeworkers. In agreement with BT, the telecoms company supplies the unions with information about which workers are home-based.

Public services union UNISON suggests having items on union meeting agendas where homeworkers can raise specific concerns as one way of ensuring their needs are not overlooked.

Homeworking: who pays?

Another key step is establishing who pays the cost of homeworking. Updated TUC guidance, published at the start of the third Covid lockdown, says that no worker should be expected to pay for their own equipment, such as computers or wi-fi, while working from home. Who pays for what will largely be a matter for collective negotiation, but there are some useful baselines that can support a negotiation (see box).

Equipment: legal baselines

There are some employment rights which constitute a basic minimum as to what equipment employers should pay for to enable workers to do their job.

Reps and individuals should check the existing written contract terms (for example, contract terms about expenses) and any policy or handbook to see whether they support an existing contractual right for equipment and/or utilities to be funded by the employer.

Even if the existing contract documents say nothing about who pays, every employment contract has an implied contract term that employees will be provided with any equipment that is reasonably necessary for them to do their job, such as a laptop or extra bandwidth.

Unreasonably failing to provide necessary equipment, thereby leaving an employee who is ready, willing and able to work unable to do so, may breach the fundamental duty of trust and confidence.

Unions can also make the case that employees who are ready, willing and able to work should be paid their wages while waiting for the employer to provide necessary equipment, or to repair broken equipment. The contract may say something specific about this. Under the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, the employer is responsible for the safety and suitability of work equipment, even if it is owned by the worker.

The employer is legally obliged to provide or fund any equipment that is reasonably necessary for health and safety. If the employer refuses to agree, the worker can ask for a second, more targeted, risk assessment, to support their case as to why a specific piece of equipment is needed, supported by a doctor’s letter if possible.

The employer must pay for any equipment required as a reasonable adjustment for disabled workers. There may be funding under the government’s Access to Work scheme. This covers equipment and other items or services that it is not reasonable to expect the employer to pay for. In other words, Access to Work is for adjustments that are needed by the worker but not reasonable for the employer to fund. Access to Work also covers some free mental health support.

The union can make an economic case during such negotiations, based on the savings the employer will make. Employers with experience of homeworking estimate that every full-time homeworker saves them at least £6,000 to £7,000 each year, according to professionals’ union Prospect. The union points out that these savings provide the basis for negotiating financial arrangements which are also beneficial to the homeworker, for example, paying/retaining metropolitan city weighting allowances when working from home.

Prospect recommends that the employer should help to reimburse homeworkers for providing office space, energy costs (such as cleaning, heating and lighting) and wear and tear.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations, it should be made clear from the beginning which costs the employer is prepared to cover. This information should be set out in the written statement of employment particulars or a collective agreement, so that there is no dispute.

Employers will often treat homeworkers who are contracted to work from home on a permanent basis differently from ad-hoc homeworkers, or even regular homeworkers.

Health and safety

Probably the most important point for reps when thinking about the health and safety of homeworkers is that an employer has all the same health and safety responsibilities for homeworkers as they do for any other workers. In particular, unions will want to guard against the risk that temporary measures introduced as a short-term solution in the initial months of the pandemic become a long-term substitute for proper standards, leading to long-term mental and physical harm.

Many of the health and safety issues around homeworking are no different from those of conventional office working, including issues around the workstation, seating, display screen equipment (DSE), electrical wiring, lighting, heating, ventilation, slip or trip hazards, stress, anxiety, supervision, organisation and work overload. The most obvious difference is that workers are hidden away in their own homes, making it much harder to ensure that standards are met. It is harder for these workers to communicate between themselves, and harder for reps to organise and lobby for correct standards. It is vital that members understand their employer’s legal obligations to keep them safe and healthy, and union safety reps have a key role in making sure this happens.

Stress and isolation

Many homeworkers experience stress and isolation. While a big advantage of homeworking is fewer distractions, this also means less contact with others and the loss of the social support, creativity and career-building opportunities which come from being in a physical workspace. Homeworking can be particularly harmful for young workers, who lose the chance to build office relationships, to learn by observing, and to gain by being mentored face-to-face. A lack of human contact and an over-reliance on electronic forms of communication can easily result in homeworkers feeling cut off, and this can sometimes lead to stress and depression.

A pre-pandemic research paper by conciliation service Acas, Home is where the work is, looked at the steps homeworkers could take to help avoid social isolation. These included using phone rather than email for work communications and also to communicate on a more social basis, including setting up informal meetings. Visits to the office to meet colleagues were also judged to be important, and scheduling regular staff meetings to help cement relationships.

Working time is a key health and safety issue for unions. Homeworkers are particularly vulnerable to working long hours, as it is all too easy for work to overlap with home life. Two thirds of homeworkers in the UK want to see a new “right to disconnect” policy in the forthcoming employment bill, polling by Prospect found.

Its survey showed that 66% of those currently working remotely would support the policy, which would require companies to negotiate with their staff and agree rules on when people could not be contacted for work purposes.

Many countries have adopted similar policies in light of the rise of remote working, with the Republic of Ireland introducing new rules last month and the European Parliament supporting similar proposals in January. The Canadian government has recently established a Right To Disconnect Advisory Committee comprising business leaders and unions to set out new rules on a digital switch-off.

As lockdown ends, it seems clear that working from home will stay and there will be many different issues to consider in the days ahead. Workers will have a range of contrasting requests, and unions and employers will have to work together to accommodate them.

LRD booklet Negotiating the new homeworking landscape – a guide for union reps is available at

ILO, Teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond (

Alan Felstead/Darja Reuschke, Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown (

Phil Taylor/Dora Scholarios/Debra Howcroft, Covid-19 and Working from Home Survey: Preliminary Findings (

CIPD/Microsoft, Work Smarter to Live Better (

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