Charting the Impact and Legacy of the Great Homeworking Experiment

In this blog post Alan Felstead of Cardiff University discusses the publication of his new book Remote Working: A Research Overview.  The book provides an accessible overview of the history of remote working and the impact of the massive shifts in the location of work that have occurred because of the global pandemic.

One of the principal means of halting the spread of coronavirus was the request, or sometimes the legal insistence, that work was carried out at home if possible. The pandemic forced work back into the home on a massive scale. The long-held belief that work and home are separate spheres of economic life was turned on its head overnight. Many employees were new to this way of working and many employers had to manage a disparate workforce for the first time.

In his new book, Remote Working: A Research Overview, Professor Alan Felstead reviews what impact this shift had on the lives of millions of employees, the organisations which employ them and the societies in which they live. It also looks to a future in which more work is carried out off-site – at home, in the local café, restaurant or bar, or while moving from place to place.

Remote Working begins by putting the pandemic-induced explosion of homeworking and the changing character of those involved into an historical context.  Just like coronavirus, working at home has mutated.  Many of today’s homeworkers – office workers ordered to work at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus – are very different from the homeworkers of forty years ago who sewed garments for local factories, assembled goods for sale or packed items for distribution. The new variant of homeworker is relatively well paid and highly educated, while the other is poorly paid and subject to exploitation. Rates of change also vary. The historic variant has been a constant, but relatively small part of the economy – never going away, but never rapidly growing either.  Modern-day homeworking, on the other hand, has been on the up well before the pandemic began.  However, during the pandemic it exploded; at one point during 2020 12.5 million people in the UK were exclusively working at home.

The prospect of workers gradually returning to the office as the pandemic recedes has highlighted two further mutations of modern-day homeworking.  The first is a situation where some work is carried out at home and some is done on employers’ premises – known as hybrid working.  The second is a situation where work is carried out in a variety of places outside the premises of the employer – often referred to as remote working.

The evolution of policy debates has mirrored the shifting nature of homeworking and its mutations. Concerns about protecting employees – particularly women and ethnic minorities – against low pay, unfair treatment and poor working conditions have been displaced by new issues.  These include the right to work at home from day one and the right to disconnect.  These issues have taken centre stage as the appetite to work at home has grown, and the boundaries between home and work have become increasingly blurred for many more people.

The book also argues that allowing employees to carry out some or all of their work off-site upends traditional management approaches that rely on workers being both ‘visible’ and ‘present’.  These approaches have traditionally been incorporated into the architectural design of offices and factories.  In offices, these features include open plan seating, internal glass walls and large central atriums.  Removing employees from view poses significant challenges for traditional management approaches.  These include the difficulties of managing an increasingly dispersed workforce, the inability to observe employees at work, and the fear that off-site working will reduce the potential of employees to bond with and learn from others.  The book considers the scale of these challenges by drawing on theories and empirical evidence.

Working at home, on the other hand, has often been sought by employees as a means of readjusting their work-life balance and enhancing their well-being.  However, some employees find that bringing work into the home makes it more difficult to draw these boundaries, especially in certain circumstances. These include: when employees are told to work at home because of a national health emergency; when space at home is limited and used by other household members; and/or when homeworking jobs are the only ones available. Other issues may also arise. Those working off-site may: get overlooked for promotion; have fewer opportunities to engage in training and development; work in less safe environments with poorer equipment; and suffer from lengthening working days and more intensive working hours.

Remote Working concludes by examining the legacy of what some have called ‘the great homeworking experiment’. Working at home has been a new experience for many. Some have relished the opportunity; others have hated it. Employers are similarly divided. There have been pluses and minuses, too, for society. Pollution levels fell during the pandemic as fewer people used motorised travel to get to and from work. On the other hand, fewer office workers in cities reduced trade for city centre businesses such as bars, restaurants and cafés. If more work is carried out remotely in the future, this will have implications for city and town planning. These are all issues that will need to be tackled since there appears little prospect of completely turning the clock back to pre-pandemic ways of working. Instead, ‘remote working’ – the detachment of work from the traditional workplace – and ‘hybrid working’ – allowing employees to pick and mix where they work – are likely to characterise the future of work in the years ahead.

The book is: Felstead, A (2022) Remote Working: A Research Overview, London: Routledge.

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