Other changes have affected some more than others, and the extent to which they revert to pre-pandemic practices is very much up in the air as lockdown rules are eased.
For office workers there has been a huge shift towards home working, but even within this group there has been a wide range of experiences.
For many, and this includes employers and employees, there have been significant benefits – more flexibility, higher output, zero commute time, more time with one’s family.
But this is tempered by a number of risks from for example loneliness, poor management, overwork and a lack of access to the kind of skills you can only gain by working directly alongside a more experienced colleague.
In the past many businesses have resisted this kind of flexible working so a rethink is welcome. However, there is a real danger that some employers go to the other extreme, scrapping expensive offices and embracing remote working without considering the views of their workforce and the potential negative consequences of such a step.
What do workers in Yorkshire and the Humber want? Polling commissioned by Prospect reveals a wide spectrum of opinion. A third want their work in the future to be in the office full time and 16 per cent want to work from home permanently.
For context, 54 per cent of those in Yorkshire and the Humber said they were wholly office-based before the pandemic with just seven per cent wholly home-based. The biggest group in our survey, around 37 per cent, are those who want some form of hybrid working with some days in the office and others at home.
A similar survey in November by YouGov, covering the whole of the UK, found 50 per cent of workers wanted to be mainly home-based in the future. That figure has now halved to 26 per cent. It seems that the most recent lockdown, and the experience of protracted remote working, has caused many workers to reassess their preference for the future.
Why? Our polling indicates that, while many workers have had a positive experience, there is also around a third of workers for whom remote working has been characterised by deteriorating mental health, worsening work-life balance and longer hours.
Central to this is the problem of the lack of separation between home and work. As one anonymous respondent put it: “Bringing my workspace into my home has blurred the line between my working and personal life and it’s becoming harder to stop my work intruding into my life.”
The scale of this problem is evident in that remote workers ranked the inability to switch off as the third biggest contributor to declining mental health, only just behind the lack of personal interaction with colleagues.
We also found that one in four remote workers were now subject to remote monitoring, such as keystroke tracking or email response time monitoring, and around half were worried that employees who worked from home may find it harder to get promotions or other forms of recognition in the future. Both trends hint at the potential for deteriorating rights at work.
Remote working is something that is here to stay either in permanent working from home, or more likely, in the form of two or three days in the office and the rest at home.
As this way of working becomes embedded, there are issues that will have to be addressed and it is important that they are not seen as a problem for managers in isolation. If employers want to maximise the benefits of an increase in ‘flexible’ working, they must work through these problems with their workforces and trade unions.
The Government also needs to equip workers and businesses with the tools to navigate this transition and a future Employment Bill should be the place to do this.
Introducing a ‘Right to Disconnect’, compelling employers to set rules with their employees about when they can be contacted for work purposes, would be a good start to update our rights to keep pace with technological change and the new reality of work.
It is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
Mike Clancy is general secretary of the Prospect trade union.
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