Why laws enshrining working from home are a bad idea
If employees want to work from home, fair enough. But legal backing for that could increase loneliness and corporate surveillance, argues James Woudhuysen
The current debate about flexible working is now a global one; but in Britain, it is opening out along political lines.
In May 2023, a leaked draft policy manifesto for the Labour Party revealed that leader Keir Starmer would likely ‘make flexible working the default from day one for all workers, except where it is not reasonably feasible’. Starmer himself told The Times that a legal right to work from home was ‘very important to us’, adding: ‘Security, dignity and respect at work matters to working people.’
His words are of great interest. One reason? The day before Starmer spoke, the Financial Times reported that the US surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, fears ‘a silent epidemic of loneliness’ – one whose effect, he says, is ‘equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day’, no less. So: just suppose that loneliness is also on the rise in the UK. Why then choose this moment to compound it, by hinting at a right to work from home (WFH) from the moment one starts a job?
One of the problems with WFH is the isolation and loneliness it can provoke. Not least, among younger workers, who benefit from the formal and informal mentoring from their colleagues that typically goes on in traditional, collective work in traditional workplaces.
Labour’s advocacy of working from home is a policy aimed almost entirely at the laptop classes. It effectively ignores all those who work in manufacturing, shops, agriculture, healthcare, transport… the list is endless. Many people in Britain still work with their hands and cannot do their jobs working from home. And the policy is not actually in the interests of those who can work virtually. The people who really benefit most are employers.
The argument goes that WFH will boost the economy and raise UK productivity levels. We’ve heard similar arguments before. In the 2000s, virtually every management consultant urged employers to allow play at work. They claimed that this would ‘unleash’ and ‘unlock’ creativity. Now policymakers claim that working from home can perform a similar function, raising productivity by removing the stresses of the office.
Neither contention is true. Table footie, air-hockey tables and funky canteens in the workplace have arguably done more to deepen Britain’s productivity crisis than resolve it. And when WFH advocates point to the hours people save in terms of not having to commute, this says more about Britain’s shocking transport network than about increased productivity in the home.
The truth is that, in many instances, working from home simply allows employers to extract more hours from their staff. After all, even the most liberal employer may be willing to ask employees to work in the time they might usually be commuting – by working later into the evening, or perhaps by working at the weekend.
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those working from home work for longer hours than they did in the office. They do indeed ‘get more done’, but only by working for longer. That doesn’t amount to higher productivity – just more work. Working from home really is not as progressive and liberating as is claimed.
Work-from-home arrangements also allow employers to monitor staff in new, more intrusive forms. Applications such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams mean that human resources departments can see more of our home arrangements. Technologies that allow IT surveillance – ‘bossware’, or what IT provider RemoteDesk calls ‘work-from-home obedience’ – will spread.
Above all, WFH will erode private life and atomise the workforce. It will also undermine workplace solidarity, make strike action harder and comradeship more difficult. And it will exacerbate loneliness.
Working from home deprives workers of the benefits of working with others. And it undermines workers’ privacy at home. Politicians may present a right to work from home as a victory for office workers and a boon for the economy. But it will be nothing of the sort.