Why working from home is bad news for workers

Employers will intrude ever more deeply into employees' private lives.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Politics UK

On 12 July, Boris Johnson told a press conference that his government was preparing guidance for business for a ‘gradual’ return to work over the summer. He said he was removing the instruction to work from home (WFH) where possible. But ‘we don’t expect’, he added, ‘that the whole country will return to their desk as one from [Freedom Day, 19 July]’.

Many share Johnson’s caution regarding even vaccinated office workers going back to their normal jobs. Indeed, plenty of commentators are calling for a New Normal for office working. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has even said that the spread of hybrid working – a mix of office work and WFH – means that we won’t go ‘back to the status quo’.

Advocates of the New Normal often go further, and actively celebrate a prospective end to the five-day, in-the-office week. Indeed, they portray WFH – which was enforced by lockdowns – as a liberating, low-transport, IT-enabled future.

But the reality is somewhat different. WFH, hybrid working and so on will neither save the planet, nor liberate workers from stifling office routines. The New Normal will in fact intensify trends already operating within the workplace. It will deepen workers’ medicalisation at the hands of employers, and further bosses’ intrusion into workers’ private lives.

It is clear the old office-going routines are now in serious doubt. This is partially because the government has put employers in a difficult position. It has effectively outsourced responsibility to employers for Covid measures, such as mask-wearing or social distancing. Some businesses may well dispense with all restrictions. But many others are deeply concerned about being asked to make choices concerning vaccine passports and taking back unvaccinated staff. And no doubt some fear litigation down the line. So encouraging continued WFH or some hybrid or blended model may well appeal to businesses.

Moreover, the office was already starting to appear as a medical problem long before Covid. Even though the evidence didn’t really bear it out. Indeed, in 2019, it was reported that only 92 Americans in office and administrative-support occupations died at work – 92 too many, but pretty modest against a total of more than 5,000 fatalities across all US workplaces.

In the same year, researchers at the University of Arizona reported that the parts of a mid-sized office that were most contaminated by viruses were ‘the refrigerator, drawer handles and sink faucets in the break room, along with the push-bar on the main exit of the building, and the soap dispensers in the women’s restroom’.

So Covid has not created a fear of the office space. It has merely exacerbated already existing fears, ramping up the perception of this cheek-by-jowl environment as a viral hotspot. This has been aided by the efforts of a rapacious commercial property sector, determined to cram more office workers into less space, both in America and in Britain. The upshot is that the often poorly ventilated office now appears, in the post-Covid world, as a medical risk too far.

Little wonder that, behind the scenes, Whitehall is now moving towards a default right to WFH.

But while the move towards WFH might be justified by government and businesses in terms of health, it will result in something decidedly unhealthy – namely, even greater employer intrusion into the lives of employees.

After all, the modern employer already has all kinds of ways of examining us, our health and our lifestyles. And because WFH is even more IT-intensive and personally intrusive than the modern office, it is fast emerging as the work practice most subject to what Karl Marx termed employer ‘superintendence’, or supervision.

Any labour process requires some superintendence, otherwise it wouldn’t bring results. The oppressive side of superintendence, though, is different. It goes beyond the surveillance of tracking workers’ keystrokes and web usage at home and extends further into a worker’s non-working private life.

Things were already heading that way in the office. Employers have been increasingly concerned with the state of one’s family, the health of one’s bank balance, one’s personal carbon footprint, and whether one has an ‘ergonomically unsound workstation’ at home.

But WFH or hybrid working takes the possibility of increasingly intrusive superintendence up a level. A heavily scheduled WFH routine will mean that employers will want to track you still harder, while work itself becomes more diffuse, implicating itself in your non-working life. This is the problem with hybrid working – it will give rise to a dangerous new porousness between different physical, social and virtual work contexts. And it will have grave consequences for private life.

What is more, these two trends – the medicalisation and increasing superintendence of office work – are connected.

This is because Covid has amplified the extent to which the worker is considered at medical risk. This provides employers with the imperative and the justification to check up on us and intrude upon our private lives – so as to keep us safe and healthy.

That’s why we must resist both the medicalisation of and increased superintendence at work, wherever the work is. And we must call a halt to the growing collapse of the old boundaries between the public world of the office and our private lives.

But how? Should we favour five days a week in the office, or three, or indeed none? Should we go back to the old, open-plan Normal, or head to the new, ‘nowhere office’?

The short answer is that we should do what suits us. But we should do everything possible to ensure it doesn’t increase employers’ intrusion into our non-working lives.

The office is not a hospital. We do not need corporate nurses endlessly enquiring about our health and our life. The office is a place where good work should be done.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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