LRD Booklets April 2021

Negotiating the new homeworking landscape - a guide for union reps

Introduction

Introduction

[pages 3-4]

COVID-19 has changed the working lives of millions of people and now, as restrictions gradually start to ease, the question is: how different will the post-pandemic world of work turn out to be?

While the CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs described the mass migration to remote working as a simple “aberration”, many other organisations such as Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have publicly announced their intention to allow staff to become permanent homeworkers if they wish.

It seems likely that many will take up the offer. Findings from the major Understanding Society COVID-19 study revealed that 75% of employees across a broad range of industries want some working from home once things return to normal and 13% would prefer working from home all the time.

If this transformation occurs it will mark a sea change in how we work. Prior to COVID-19, research by the TUC showed one in three flexible working requests were being turned down and that up to four million UK workers wanted to have the option to homework but hadn’t been given the chance.

Crucially the great homeworking experiment instigated by the instruction to stay at home in March 2020 has shown it can work. In April 2020 nearly 40% of people worked from home in the first lockdown and proved once and for all that jobs once considered as office only can be transferred to the home.

The benefits of remote working for the employee are extensive, including saving time and money on the commute, 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 research shows higher levels of productivity among homeworkers.

But there are downsides, too. While a big advantage of homeworking is fewer distractions, this also means less contact with others and the loss of social support, creativity and career-building opportunities that come from being in a physical workspace with others. Many homeworkers have complained of working longer hours and feeling that they are living at work rather than working from home.

Some groups, such as disabled workers, may stand to benefit from homeworking, while others, like young people and new recruits, may well lose out from the lack of face-to-face contact. During the pandemic there was growing concern that remote working was damaging progress on gender equality with women left to juggle work, caring responsibilities and home schooling.

While expectations are that the shift to homeworking will not fully reverse once the pandemic is over, it is also clear that the option to home work 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. 

Unions are calling on the government to make labour market interventions that are truly inclusive, and don’t reinforce privilege.

Meanwhile the Labour Research Department has found that, while many union reps are positive at 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.

Unions also warn of the dangers that full-time remote working and “hybrid working” could exclude home-based workers from decisions and opportunities. They are also concerned about the increasing use of technology to monitor workers at home.

If remote working is going to be a successful arrangement it needs to have everyone’s backing. There may be many benefits but without proper support homeworkers can feel cut off and isolated. This is why trade unions can play a key role in establishing successful homeworking arrangements that benefit the worker and the employer.

This booklet provides unions reps with key information ranging from how to draw up collective homeworking policies and agreements with employers to advising individual members on whether making a homeworking request is a good idea for them.

It sets out how collective agreements can ensure employees are properly supported and equipped and remain productive, healthy and safe when working at home, that they are properly compensated for any costs they may incur, and that any savings that employers make from a rise in remote working are shared equitably across the workforce.

Unions will have to represent workers seeking a range of different outcomes. This booklet will help ensure that changes in the world of work benefit unions and their members as well as their employers.