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The future of flexible work

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Addressing the risks of increased homeworking
For those who can access home working there are also a range of risks that must be addressed.

An increase in working hours  

Limiting working time or more importantly maximising time outside work, has always been a core element of ensuring a fair deal for workers and home working can be a threat to that. Research prior to the pandemic has shown that flexible working can often lead to higher workloads[1]. FDA research[2] in the senior civil service has found that an increase in remote working was identified by members as having the potential to lead to a blurring of the boundaries between work and home, an expectation of constant availability and an encouragement of digital presenteeism. While flexible working has the potential to improve work-life balance, an ‘always on’ culture, and the rise of ‘on-demand’ services requiring ‘on-demand’ workers, is a significant risk to workers’ rights.  

Experiences of working from home during the pandemic has shown long hours to be a risk. ONS analysis[3] shows that people who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week in 2020, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never worked from home. 

Polling by Prospect[4] in April 2021 after the third UK lockdown, showed that whilst the majority of respondents (58 per cent) said home-based working had a positive impact on work-life balance many were finding it difficult to switch off from work. Their research found 30 per cent of new remote workers reported working longer unpaid hours during the last year. 

Surveillance of workers in their homes 

The development of new technologies, including those powered by AI and machine learning, is transforming the world of work. AI-powered tools are now used at all stages of the employment relationship, from recruitment to line management to dismissal.  

An increase in home working could result in an increase of surveillance of working people, for example through key logging, recording social media usage and software which photographs workers via webcam. A small but significant number (16 per cent) of union reps told us in a recent survey that they had noticed workers being subjected to new monitoring technologies as a result of the increase in homeworking during the pandemic[5]

A recent survey conducted by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance found that more than 60 per cent of firms have adopted new technologies or management practices since the start of the pandemic and more than 90 per cent said they expected to keep the changes in place. Out of the firms who had not adopted new technologies, a third planned to do so in future[6].  

Surveillance and monitoring of workers intheir homes is likely to be unlawful and we oppose any introduction of surveillance that infringesa worker’s(or their family’s) right to privacy, breaches data protectionlegislation, has a negative impact on their physical or mental health, or their safety. Our recent survey and polling[7] on employers use of technology found that: 

·       48 per cent of union reps said workers had not been asked for their consent before their employer introduces new technologies  

·       60 per cent of workers agree that unless carefully regulated, workplace monitoring could increase unfair treatment in the workplace. 

·       technology providing constant real time evaluation of performance may have a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing. 

Recent YouGov polling commissioned by Prospect[8] also revealed the extent to which workers are uncomfortable with monitoring and surveillance while they are remote working, with 66 per cent being uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring and 80 per cent uncomfortable with camera monitoring.  

A lack of trust by employers of home workers could be influencing this trend, driven by a view that those at home cannot be trusted to work productively. The increased use of surveillance is an example of poor employment practices often associated with the gig economy and employer side flexibility creeping into other areas of work.  

Health and safety 

Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for home-based workers as any other worker, but we know from our unions that many employers were slow to react at the beginning of the pandemic. Our unions reported employers were failing to support workers to carry out risk assessments in their homes, provide the correct ergonomic equipment and address concerns related to isolation and stress. Many disabled workers also did not receive the reasonable adjustments they required when working from home.  

Research[9] looking into how working from home is affecting the UK workforce showed an increase in self reported musculoskeletal complaints and declining levels of exercise in the first 2 weeks of the lockdown in March 2020. In the survey by the IES, more than half of respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58 per cent) and 60 per cent acknowledge they were exercising less. In the same survey 33 per cent reported feeling frequently isolated.  

Access to promotion and development  

Flexible work arrangements have often been stereotypically associated with a lack career ambition or have chosen to focus on other areas of their life over work, rather than a right that can help people balance their work and life commitments. In particular part-time work is often associated with poor progression routes. CIPD megatrends data on flexible working shows that part-time workers were less optimistic about promotion prospects. And only 19 per cent of part-time employees stated they had been promoted in the past five years compared to 38 per cent of full time[10]. With women making up the majority of part-time workers, this is a significant impact on women’s progression at work.  

There is a danger that workers being out of sight at home will mean they are not considered when it comes to development and promotion opportunities. ONS analysis between 2012 and 2017, showed that employees who consistently worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees, when controlling for other factors[11]

Recent research by CMI and the Work Foundation[12] found that 26 per cent of managers expected remote working to decrease access to training and development. The same research also stated that managers expected greater take up of post-Covid-19 remote working to be by disabled workers and those with caring responsibilities, often women. This is consistent with patterns of who accessed home working before the pandemic. Any patterns that mean remote workers are less likely to access training, development and promotion opportunities could therefore be indirect discrimination.   

Performance management  

Increasing levels of home working will require managers to adapt management approaches, including as mentioned above ensuring that access to development is equal and managing through trust not surveillance. Yet research shows that two thirds of managers (65 per cent) report they have not received training on how to manage remote working staff in May 2021[13].   

Increased working from home will also have implications for how employers communicate with and make decisions about workers. TUC research into technology managing people, found 22 per cent who responded said they had experience of use of technologies for absence management, 14 per cent for work allocation, and 14 per cent in the assessment of training needs and allocation[14]. There is a risk that with increased remote working, decision making through technology without consultation or transparency with the worker could increase.  

We also know from working mums experience in lockdown that clear communication from managers on expectation of workload was key to successful flexible working.  

A TUC survey of working mums in January 2020 found that flexible workarrangementswas the highest requestedform of support (62 percent)to cope with home schooling.Many participants reported that whilst their employer hadgranted flexible work, the expectation of workload had remained the sameleaving women stressed and anxious.   

Whilst future home workers will not have to cope with home schooling our survey demonstrated thatflexible workarrangementsneed to be accompanied byadjustments intasksand clear communication of expectation from employers. 

Access to unions 

Trade unions have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, fighting for workers safety and job security and to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic for millions of working people. We continued to organise and negotiate and used our collective strength and power to demand a seat at the table with both government and employers. As workers were confined to their homes, we often used digital methods to bring workers together and force change. 

We were instrumental in the establishment of the Job Retention Scheme. Many workers ingalleries and museums[15],manufacturing[16]andtransport[17]were furloughed on 100 per cent wages due to agreements reached between unions and employers. 

We know that workers are safer when they join a union, and up and down the country unions ensured employers were implementing health and safety measures such as PPE, ventilation and social distancing.   

But we know that despite the opportunities that flexible working brings, increasing numbers of flexible workers has the potential to create an atomised and individualised workforce which is harder to bring together for collective power. We must also ensure that all workers, regardless of where or how they work, have access to a trade union and are able to participate in trade union activities. Union reps who work from home must also be able to access the facilities and facility time they need to carry out their duties.  

[13] ibid

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