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BME workers experiences of home working – why we need to make flexible working the default

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Since the pandemic lockdowns, there has been a lot of discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of home working but very little has included the voices of BME workers. TUC and University of Kent have tried to address that gap though new research into BME workers access to and experiences of home working to ensure home working is inclusive for Black workers.

Access to home working 

Comparing Labour Force Survey data from 2019 and 2022, the University of Kent found that the rise we’ve seen in home working has not been equal. Whilst lots of people have benefitted, Black (African/Caribbean/Black British), Chinese/other Asian and Pakistani/Bangladeshi workers1 are the least likely to have access to home working, in particular men from these groups. Only 17 per cent of Black men, 21 per cent of Chinese/Other Asian men and 23 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshi men say that home is their main place of work. And the rate of increase between 2019 and 2022 has been slower compared to other ethnic groups. 

home working proportion for all workers between men and women
Figure 1. Working from home as the main place of work across ethnicity and gender in 2019 and 2022. Note: Percentage based on the questions related to workers’ main working place. 

The TUC believes this is due to occupational segregation and workplace racism. BME workers are overrepresented in three of the four occupations with the lowest rates of home or hybrid working: elementary occupations, sales and custom service occupations and personal service (sales and custom service). University of Kent did further analysis where they controlled for factors including sector and occupation and the results remained largely the same meaning that it’s likely also down to workplace racism meaning BME workers will feel unable to ask for flexible working for fear of negative consequences.  

Our current law on flexible working is a right to request but a request-based system will often mean that those with protected characteristics lose out due to the discrimination they already experience as they are less likely to have bargaining power at work. We need a right to flexible working, so people don’t have to ask and to increase flexible working across all occupations not just those who can work from home.  

Experiences of home working 

For those who can work from home, TUC and University of Kent carried out a diary study, looking at 20 BME people’s experiences of working from home. We found home working was good for equality, productivity and wellbeing but negative perceptions of homeworkers still existed, resulting in poor practices that could be intensified for Black workers. 

Home working was really valued by the majority of our participants because of improved work-life balance, wellbeing, more time with loved ones but they also felt more productive at work. Despite this, it was evident that stigma against home workers still exists, particularly in relation to their perceived commitment to work and work ethic. And participants felt this stigma was intensified for BME workers who also experience discriminatory perceptions about work ethnic due to their race.  

We saw that this stigma led to poor practices in the workplace, for example the introduction of intrusive monitoring technology or excessive messaging and micromanagement, which in some instances extended into bullying. And again, our participants felt BME workers were more likely to be monitored. 

[An app} is stored in our mobile from work, every morning you have to bleep in and then you bleep out at the end of the day….When you have a break you choose the option and want to press end of the break. If you going to the office, you will bleep into the office by scanning a QR code as you enter the building.....[it] was introduced this year [2023] and most of the response was negative, it takes a while to get used to it, people feel spied on. 

We discourage this attitude to micromanagement and really, really picking on people because to me that's an element of microaggression. It's an element of bullying. [but] here is still a problem around microaggression micromanagement. Using Microsoft Teams to check when somebody's at their desk..... companies need to have safeguarding mechanisms and make sure that hybrid working doesn't extend into bullying and exclusion. 

Our participants’ experiences also showed that home working has potentially allowed for a pattern of overwork for example cases of people working late into the evening/early in the morning and missing breaks. Participants shared that this happened due to excessive workloads, availability of phones and laptops at home, but also due to the need to prove their worth due to negative perceptions of home workers.  

I feel that there is a slight expectation of people working from home to work longer hours because we’re so near our desk - often I miss my lunch, take spontaneous calls at awkward times or respond to emails late at night because of this. 

Participants shared that the need to ‘prove yourself’ through presenteeism and long hours was intensified for Black workers who face the double burden of flexibility stigma and racism around their work ethic.  

I do (think that BME workers have to communicate more to their managers/colleagues than white workers). I kind of forgot I do that because it's so automatic now. 

Good practice  

Fortunately, the study also found numerous examples of good practice. The most common one mentioned was the normalisation of flexible working. Where home working was seen as default, offered to all including managers and the benefits were understood and communicated, there were less stigmatised views around home workers.  

I can’t recall, and during this study haven’t once consciously heard anyone say anything negative about homeworkers. I think because everyone works hybridly…There’s truly no expectation for anyone to go in. I think it’s almost modelled by our leadership and they do it [work from home] as much as anyone else.  

As we’ve seen, negative views around homeworkers can exacerbate workers’ tendency to work long hours and for employers to excessively monitor staff. Normalising flexible working can help to prevent this to the benefit of both workers and employers.  

Our research found that access to and experiences of home/hybrid are linked to other forms of discrimination at work, in this case workplace racism. Flexibility stigma and associated downsides of hybrid working can be disproportionately felt by BME workers. Therefore, it is essential that employers take action to ensure that hybrid working is implemented in inclusive ways. Home working supports equality, provides benefits for employers and many workers have strong preference for it. Therefore, the solution is not to prevent home working but to have good policies, practices and cultures to support its use and to normalise it. The full report contains all the findings and recommendations on how to do this.  

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