CRED blog series: Widespread expansion of homeworking reveals inequalities in access and quality of work
Dr Suki Sian and Professor Tessa Wright
Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, School of Business and Management
Queen Mary, University of London
Enormous numbers of people experienced working at home for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) advocates have long called for a variety of flexible working arrangements, including homeworking, to increase employment opportunities for disadvantaged labour market groups. Therefore this period of altered work practices has forced employers in sectors previously resistant to flexible work or homeworking to allow new work patterns, possibly resulting in long‐term changes that benefit working parents, carers or disabled workers, for example. On the other hand, many studies have highlighted the additional labour of childcare and homeschooling undertaken primarily by working women. Additionally, as periods of homeworking are extended, there are serious concerns about the impact of social isolation on workers’ mental health, as well as questions of staff management, workload and performance monitoring that can have consequences for equality and inclusion.
These issues were discussed by a panel of equality experts from academia and the world of work at a webinar held by the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity (CRED), School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London on 8 December 2020. The audience of 100 people heard from CRED researcher Dr Suki Sian, Newcastle University’s Prof. Abigail Marks, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development’s (CIPD) Senior Policy Adviser Resourcing and Inclusion, Claire McCartney, and Trades Union Congress (TUC) Policy and Campaigns Support Officer, Natasha Owusu.
Homeworking benefits not equally shared
While there were undoubted benefits to some workers from the massive homeworking experiment, such as auditors who had previously been denied the chance to work at home due to the requirement to attend client premises, the speakers highlighted a polarization in workers’ experiences of homeworking. The benefits of homeworking were felt more strongly by higher-paid and white-collar workers, and those in higher socio-economic groups, according to Prof Marks’s research on homeworking under COVID. Dr Sian’s research with auditors also revealed a welcome opportunity to work at home instead of travelling to client premises, opening up the possibility for inclusion of a broader range of workers including working mothers and disabled workers. On the other hand, Prof Marks’s research showed that those in lower socio-economic groups faced increased work-life conflict, especially among parents of school-age children, and those with overcrowded home conditions. All homeworkers experienced longer working hours, and difficulties in managing the pace of work, especially during the first period of lockdown.
Women and black and minority ethnic workers (BME) were less likely to be able to work from home, the TUC’s Natasha Owusu pointed out, as they occupy front line, emergency and health and social care jobs in disproportionate numbers, resulting in higher rates of contracting COVID-19 than those able to work at home. BME women in particular are over-represented in insecure work, thus losing out on workplace protections, such as sick pay, which would enable them to stay at home if exposed to the virus.
Employer support crucial
Employers therefore play a crucial role in providing a suitable work environment at home and in equalizing differences in the provision of technology and equipment necessary for homeworking. While many of those surveyed in Marks’s research had found their employers to be good at providing the necessary equipment, unfortunately a few were not so fortunate and had to work from ironing boards! The research also found little evidence of employer payments for the costs of working at home, such as additional heating bills.
Homeworking is expected to continue, and a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) showed that employers anticipate the number of people working at home to double in the long-term compared to before the pandemic. The CIPD’s Claire McCartney believed that this enforced experiment had opened up employer mindsets, and had demonstrated that employees could be trusted to perform well at home, with evidence of increased productivity. Similarly Dr Sian concluded that audit employers were now willing to embrace change, saying: “homeworking is now more acceptable in an industry where it certainly wasn’t before.”
Opportunities for disabled workers
There have also been some benefits for disabled workers, with a survey by public services union UNISON finding that avoiding travel to work had reduced disabled workers’ experiences of exhaustion and pain, with almost three-quarters saying that they were either more or equally productive when working from home (Unison, August 2020). Benefits for disabled academics were highlighted by CRED’s Dr Nadia Ahmed in her blog piece Can we perform like “super-cripples” during this challenging pandemic? Opportunities for Disabled People working in Academia. She argued that online teaching can level the playing field for disabled academics who normally have to navigate the many challenges of the physical classroom, from hearing-loops, maneuvering a wheelchair through congested furniture layouts, inflexible teaching podiums, and poor lighting. Unions have, however, pointed out that adjustments made to a disabled person’s workplace are not always replicated at home with employer support.
Risks of homeworking
Surveys have shown that many workers, especially parents, want flexibility over homeworking to continue after the pandemic, at least for part of the week. However, women have been more likely to give up work or reduce their hours to accommodate childcare during the pandemic. Furthermore, Prof Marks’s research found that women were less likely than men to have dedicated work space at home, and more likely to work from the kitchen table. Younger workers though, were eager to return to the workplace, according to Dr Sian’s findings, missing out on social aspects of work. All workers raised concerns about social isolation from prolonged periods of homeworking and many missed daily “decompression activities” such as sharing a joke or a chat with colleagues to counter the intensive pace of work.
Claire McCartney warned of the need to resist the creation of a two-tier workforce as homeworking continues, where those who are present in the office receive career development opportunities, while those who have to work at home are less visible and may be overlooked in career progression. Natasha Owusu also called for employers to remember workers whose jobs do not allow them to work from home, but who need equal access to flexible working. Prof Marks warned that an increased policy focus on homeworking “can increase existing inequalities in the labour market” between those who can and cannot work at home and “may further increase the gap between the rich and the poor.”
Learning from positive experience
Webinar participants asked how the positive lessons from increased homeworking can be built upon. The CIPD and TUC were united in calling on the government to extend the right to request flexible working to apply from day one of employment. Claire McCartney recommended the Equality and Human Rights Commission's Coronavirus Guidance for Employers, which advises on how to avoid discrimination in redundancies, on providing reasonable adjustments and duties on pregnancy and maternity. She said that employers needed to support inclusion in all workplaces, both home and office, adopting practices such as knowledge sharing, online risk assessments and reasonable adjustments. Line managers need training in supporting staff at home, including through regular one-to-one meetings and “managing by outputs not inputs.” Natasha Owusu emphasized that for the TUC all aspects of flexible work, homeworking and equality and inclusion were bargaining issues to be agreed between employers and trade unions “to put policies in place that are equal and accessible to everybody.”
The full recording of the webinar is available to watch here: Does widespread homeworking offer equality benefits or entrench inequality?