Commentary,  Future of Work,  Labour Standards,  Time & Working Hours

Working From Home Helps, but is No Panacea

Millions of Canadians have been doggedly working from home through the pandemic. It’s inspired endless memes and laments on social media: Zoom meetings in pyjamas, kids running amok with office papers, super-sized data and electricity bills.

To be sure, there are many economic benefits of home work. It maintains at least partial production, while respecting physical distancing and flattening the curve. On one hand, those who can work from home are lucky. They keep earning, but without the risks of infection facing those who must go out to work. But there are also many challenges and risks associated with home work. And if, as many expect, working from home remains common after the pandemic, employers, unions, and policy-makers must address those challenges and make home work better.

Who Gets to Work at Home?

Not everyone can do their jobs from home. I estimate only around 30% of Canadian workers can work largely or wholly from home. And that group is not randomly distributed. Managers, professionals, and specialists – people who work mostly on computers – are most likely to be able to do their jobs remotely. That creates a double injustice: many of them earned higher salaries before the pandemic hit, and now they get to keep working. That inequality reinforces the need for stronger income protections for those who lose work in the pandemic. Not all home workers are high earners; many earn lower pay, including many clerical, sales, and call centre jobs.

Shifting Costs: Some employers are enthusiastic about potential savings from downsizing offices and other workplaces. More home work means less costs for buildings, utilities, and office equipment, potentially padding profit margins after the recession. But it’s unfair to simply shift workplace costs onto workers. Home workers should be compensated fairly for the expenses they incur – including utilities, data, equipment, and space. Decent home work allowances should be specified in employment contracts and labour standards.

On the Clock: Even before the pandemic, it was already hard to turn off work. With smart phones, email, and wifi, work follows us everyone – even on vacation. With home work, the boundaries between work and life become even fuzzier. Employers are tempted to assume home workers are always on the job, with the laptop just an arm’s length away. Many expect workers to make up for inevitable interruptions associated with home work by staying on the job well into the evening. Clear expectations need to be established and defended, that the working day still ends at a normal time.

Caring Labour: Another burden shifted to workers in home work arrangements is childcare and family responsibilities. For much or all of the day, home workers (especially women) are unfairly expected to manage households and childcare while still performing their paid duties. The expansion of home work cannot become another excuse to delay necessary improvements in public childcare.

Space and Safety:

Few home workers have a spare room or den to dedicate to an efficient, quiet work space. More of us work from kitchen tables and other makeshift places. In the long run, careful attention must be paid to organizing safe, ergonomic home work spaces: with good lighting, safe wiring, quality furnishings, and free of trip and fall hazards. Another priority must be safety in the family environment, again especially critical for women. Preventing and stopping violence at home (with measures like paid domestic violence leave) is essential for safe home work.

Privacy: Some employers complain working from home is a license to slack off. Many are already rolling out new ways to monitor employee attention and productivity in their own homes. Webcam snooping, digital productivity trackers, GPS surveillance, and other strategies could convert our homes into digital glass houses. This surveillance is intrusive and dangerous, and should be outlawed. Bosses need to use carrots, not sticks, in supporting their home workers to do their best.

Working from home will likely retain some of its current popularity, even once we can safely get back to work. But employment practices and labour standards must evolve to make sure home work is done right: safely, sustainably, and fairly.

And at the end of the day, workers will need to defend their right to return to regular workplaces – because working in pyjamas will quickly lose its novelty. For most of us, interaction with colleagues, escaping from household stresses and duties, and working in a real workplace (not the kitchen table) all enhance job quality and productivity. Employers’ cost-cutting dreams shouldn’t supercede our right to get back to normal work.

For a more detailed analysis of risks and challenges associated with the increase in work–from home arrangements, please see this report published by the Centre for Future Work in Australia: Working from Home in a Pandemic: Opportunities and Risks, by Alison Pennington and Jim Stanford.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.