Obviously, there’s no issue with middle class people benefitting from a policy and some of the improvements it’s made have really helped people with particular personal characteristics that transcend class boundaries, including some workers with disabilities and some with caring responsibilities. But how can we make sure that we’re making labour market interventions that are truly inclusive, and don’t reinforce privilege?
Who are we actually talking about?
Nothing has narrowed our perspectives like being unable to leave our communities for many months at a time. It may sound obvious to say ‘policy needs to be based on the evidence’, but the prospect of sustaining WFH levels needs to be contextualised in our wider goals for good work and equality.
And it’s so easy to lose perspective – I was surprised to learn that barely more than a third of workers were exclusively working from home during the first lockdown. I thought it was higher. But this means when we talk about home working we’re talking about a minority of Welsh workers. Those working exclusively from home were more likely to be graduates and be in higher-paid roles too. And those in lower paid occupation groups tended to be much less likely to work from home – only around 1 in 5 of those in elementary occupations were working from home. 84% of those with low levels of formal qualifications were working outside the home during the first lockdown.
This was backed up in some polling we’ve recently conducted with YouGov. 42% of workers said they wanted to continue working from home for at least some of the time, with only 9% saying they wanted to work all their usual hours from home. Broken down by social grade the results showed a clear class divide. 61% of ABC1 households said that wanted to continue working from home for at least some of the time after the pandemic, while this was only the case for 33% of respondents from C2DE households.
The reasons for this are likely to do with the nature of people’s work and living arrangements, but also the reality that introducing greater flexibility is not necessarily the gift it appears to be when you’re pretty disempowered in your working life. Our labour market is already defined by one-sided flexibility for a lot of people in badly paid jobs. While lots of us might be embracing greater flexibility because it’s in the context of a unionised workplace, when you don’t have this mechanism to balance our power the reality is that the WFH agenda will be another measure that you have no influence over.
Unless we plan to ignore this inequality, there’s a big challenge here in ensuring that homeworking, flexible working and remote working is done in such a way that benefits the workers, rather than an employer looking to cut back on office costs, for example.
Involve unions to design and implement schemes that workers actually want
Homeworking benefits a lot of people, but it’s definitely not what everyone wants. 32% of those polled in C2DE households said they wanted to work entirely from their usual workplace once the pandemic was over. There is so much support for the notion that we need a “workplace model where staff can choose to work in the office, at home or in a hub location,” but we need to be realistic that many of us are at risk of not having a meaningful choice where a union isn’t involved.
It’s therefore sensible that any policy ideas are taken to social partners (trade unions and employers) first. As experts in the workplace, they can advise on how to deliver policies like this fairly, in such a way that means that workers’ interests are incorporated. And social partners must also look at measures to make home working more inclusive – whether that’s addressing digital poverty or evaluating where a lack of investment is preventing some (typically lower paid) workers from WFH.
This is especially important if there is going to be significant public spend, like with the proposed remote working hubs. We need to be really clear that we fully understand the implications for all sorts of employment matters - like health and safety law, reasonable adjustments, and remote management. We need to make sure that any public spend strengthens equality, and doesn’t risk leaving some behind. And we also need to consider what we’re trying to achieve through this particular strand of WFH policy. Alarmingly, only 8% of those surveyed said they’d be very likely to work from a remote-working hub after the pandemic for at least one day a week, and a further 9% answering that they’d be ‘fairly likely’ to do this.
Fair investment will help to deliver the fair work agenda too
Lots of jobs can’t be done from home. And lots of these jobs are done by those who continued going out to work throughout the pandemic to run our health services, provide food for us and keep our utilities functioning. Some key workers can do their job from home, and of course they may benefit from a greater emphasis on home working and even from the remote working hubs. But is it fair that we invest so much in an area which won’t benefit many key workers?
We’d like policymakers to subscribe to a principle of parity of investment, to avoid a situation whereby an already privileged group are given further advantage. For any investment in home or remote working, we’d like to see a proportionate investment in those who can’t do their job from home. This could be something like subsidised public transport costs or engaging workers on the location of childcare facilities, or even altering school catchment areas to consider where people work as well as live. It’s for unions to consult with their members on exactly what they would want, but we think the principle should stand that investment should be fairly distributed.
But it’s also really important to think about where these hubs are based and how they operate to maximise the benefits of the investment. We would like to see a more sophisticated model emerging which considers how hubs could be based in parts of Wales where people are less likely to find a good job. We’d expect the core staff to be public service workers, bringing good jobs to their communities. And we’d also like to see how hubs could address key challenges facing many workers, like the provision of affordable childcare. Basically, we would like hubs to be the next step of what we envisaged with the ‘Better Jobs Closer to Home’ campaign.
Home and remote working bring lots of benefits to many workers, and a lot of people will want to continue working in this way or in a blended model once the pandemic is over. But we have to pursue a model that empowers workers to take the decision that suits their needs the best, and we can’t just assume that public investment will result in fairer outcomes because intentions are good. This isn’t how our labour market works. Instead, we need to go in eyes wide open about the challenges of intervening here and also put in place mechanisms to ensure workers are heard along the way. Otherwise, we risk compounding class privilege and therefore compounding class disadvantage.