Google has a list of ‘most asked questions’ on every topic you can imagine, and for homeworking it is no different. People are asking:
How to stay motivated working from home
How to stay focused working from home
How to start working from home
How to be productive working from home
How to get a job working from home
These are all valid questions – and ones Homeworker Hub will try to answer in due course. It is to be expected that people who are new to working from home are looking for answers about how to make their new situation actually work for them. I have been homeworking for a decade and even I haven’t ironed out all of the problems with homeworking, especially the ones about keeping toddlers entertained at the same time. However, the top ten questions on Google are all on a similar, insular theme which can be summarised as “how can I change my situation to make homeworking better for me?”
While these questions are relevant, I find myself drawn to a different set of questions around the topic of homeworking. The sudden shift in circumstances that we have all experienced over the last year as a result of Covid-19 has led me to look outward at homeworking as a movement, rather than an individual problem that I have to solve for myself. This new perspective has led to the generation of several questions to which neither I nor Google currently have the answers to.
My questions fall into broad categories. They are the starting point for what I think will be an interesting journey of exploration and discovery. I don’t have the answers for any of these yet, but I will keep you posted… and if you do have the answers, please get in touch.
What will be the impact of homeworking on the environment?
The reduction in car and aeroplane emissions is an immediate win for the environment, but as with most things in life, it’s not quite that clear-cut. We may be reducing our journey emissions, but we are increasing our domestic energy consumption to stay warm and power our computers. We can no longer share resources such as printers and scanners, which means there is a greater demand for their manufacture (and therefore an increase in packaging waste from these items as well). Does one cancel out the other? Is it really better for the environment that we all stay at home to work where possible?
Will homeworking lead to a rebalancing of the housing market?
Starter homes in the UK have traditionally been quite small, from the one-bedroom flats to the common two-up-two-down models that fill our suburbs. These may meet the needs of people who are living in such accommodation, but they are woefully inadequate for anyone who is also required to work from them long-term.
To date, people have been buying houses which reflect their accommodation needs. Suddenly requiring extra space for a home office or study skews the household dynamic. For example, your average family in a three-bedroom house is unlikely to have additional space to accommodate desks for both parents. The pandemic has forced people to be creative with their working spaces - hot desking at the kitchen table, from the sofa, sometimes from their beds - is not a viable long-term solution. I say this from both a comfort/posture perspective as well as a logistical one – it is unfair to take communal space away from young family members, and sharing the space is often not possible due to the noise and mess created by boisterous children when they return from school. This then begs the question of souped-up sheds vs loft conversions vs moving to a more spacious house… All of which is fine if you have both the space and money to extend or move, but for many families who are just about managing, none of these options are open to them. And what about new housing developments? Should the government introduce policy changes to ensure new developments are both adequately sized and priced to allow families the extra space for a home office at a reasonable price? What about existing housing stock? If we are set to continue homeworking, should the government help those families whose current housing is inadequate for both living and working? Education
Do we need to review education policy so we ensure our children are learning the right skills for a homeworking world?
One of the main roles of schools is to train children to fill their parent’s shoes in the world of work. As children go through secondary school, the ideal is that their classrooms become increasingly reminiscent of the standard office environment – quiet concentration and the low buzz of productivity from neatly uniformed cohorts. This is a rather simplified picture, but the point stands. If schools exist in part to prepare children for the world of work, they must be able to quickly respond to any changes in the professional environments for which they are preparing their students.
In the last decade, as a direct response to the STEM Review of 2009, we have seen an increasing emphasis on the teaching of STEM subjects across the age groups. More recently, as a result of the work from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, we have seen a push in the teaching of gratitude, knightly virtues and character. Perhaps we need to ensure schools are also giving children a strong footing in the characteristics required by homeworkers – self-motivation, resilience, problem-solving and self-awareness to name just a few.
How can we protect employees from the over-reach of their employers?
In November 2020, the Guardian reported that economists at Deutsche Bank had proposed a 5% tax to be levied against their employees for each day they chose to work from home. Their reasoning was that it wouldn’t ultimately impact the real wage of the average employee because of savings made by not commuting or buying lunch, the need for a smaller work wardrobe (do they think we work naked when at home?) and other sundry expenses incurred during the average working day. Understandably, this announcement drew much criticism and ire from across the web, with comments from people on platforms such as Reddit decrying the idea as ‘just unbelievably dumb.’
While I sincerely hope that DB is quietly shelving their suggestion, the idea of a levy on those who embrace homeworking does raise further questions about where the power and influence of a company should stop. It used to be that, for the majority at least, leaving the workplace at 5pm meant not thinking about work again until 9am the following morning. Then the advent of smartphones has meant that we have seen a gradual erosion of work/life boundaries. Now homeworking has become mainstream we must be very careful to make sure that large corporations – indeed, companies of any size – do not take this chance to encroach further on the lives and privacy of their employees. Employer/employee trust
Can employers and employees trust each other while homeworking?
Following on from above, the issue of trust between employer and employee is a big one that will not go away. Since the late 1920s, the rationalist school of management thinkers have been arguing that “the key to long-term success lay in treating workers well,” and yet since the outbreak of Covid-19, employee monitoring software has flourished in an unprecedented manner. Adrian Wakeling of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has identified this trend and argues that “we need a new collective psychological contract between employer and employee that spells out behaviours and values, which are so different now [as a result of Covid].”
Just as employers need to learn to trust employees to do the work for which they are paid, employees need to be able to trust their bosses to balance a healthy respect for boundaries with the provision for any additional support or motivational assistance that the employee requests. Trust is a two-way street, and this is no different in the home working environment.
The search for answers
As a society, we will undoubtedly be seeing the ripples of this mass change in working practices for many years to come. While we can’t yet see the patterns and pressure points that will be generated from this shift towards home working, we are in a unique position whereby we can help shape the way in which these changes impact our world. If home working leads to increases in carbon use, perhaps changes in housing policy can help mitigate this. If home working leads to a higher risk of mental health issues, maybe more can be done during school years to help prepare the up-and-coming generations.
None of us have the answers to these questions yet as more data and distance is required before we can start tackling them in earnest. The important thing at this stage is that we are starting to ask questions like this – and maybe this will put us in a stronger position to find a balance that works for everyone in the labour market.