Thursday 13 August 2020 4:21 am

We cannot let workers’ rights evaporate just because we’re working from home

Andrew Pakes is research director at Prospect Union. He tweets at @andrew4mk

Are we working from home, or sleeping at the office? 

It’s a question that captures the love-hate relationship many workers (and, indeed, employers) have with remote working. 

This relationship has only become more strained as the pandemic has forced thousands of us to reconfigure our homes into makeshift offices with dining tables doubling up as desks and bookshelves carefully curated to make acceptable Zoom backgrounds. 

While for many of us the transition to home working happened in the blink of an eye, the impact on our mental health, our work-life balance, and ultimately our rights at work is set to be prolonged. If we are going to keep working from home, we need a better framework for managing the trade-offs.

Technology was already blurring the line between work and our personal lives long before we’d even heard of lockdown. The always-on culture of checking emails and taking calls at home had become widespread in many companies and industries — and now remote working has made drawing the line between work and home even more complicated.

While the “death of the office” narrative may be a little overblown, we are clearly heading for a world where remote working is more normalised, and even encouraged by employers. Many have been content for their employees to continue working from home, having found that technology allows their teams to function almost as well from a flat in Croydon as a tower in Canary Wharf. 

But just as employers are discovering the benefits of mass remote working, many workers are now experiencing another side to it. The commute may now consist only of a flight of stairs, but working hours are actually increasing as workers struggle to erect barriers between work and the rest of their lives. 

This in turn is affecting our mental health, with cases of work-related stress on the rise across the country. 

Unfortunately, this is only set to worsen as patterns of home working solidify and employers begin to seriously invest in new technology that can monitor productivity, supervise work patterns, and in some cases even snoop on messages between colleagues.

The UK needs to get to grips with the consequences of remote working — and fast. Two changes in particular are needed to prevent its many advantages being rapidly outstripped by the drawbacks. 

First, we need a serious discussion about a “right to disconnect”. This has existed in France for years, and other countries are following suit, with Argentina recently passing a law which aims to provide a “right to rest and disconnection [from work] outside of working hours”. The Irish government has also launched a consultation on the issue, at the urging of the Irish Financial Services Union. Telefonica has signed a European-wide agreement with unions for workers to negotiate a right to disconnect alongside pay and conditions. The UK needs to catch up.

Second, it is time for some proper legal frameworks to be put around the ability of employers to monitor their employees and use their data for their own ends. The technology in this area has got well ahead of the law and allows far too much freedom for employers to invade the privacy of their workers and introduce tech that changes the nature of their work without consultation.

When this was in the workplace it was bad enough, but the right to monitor someone in their own home surely has to come with more strings attached. That it doesn’t should prompt a bigger reassessment of the balance of rights between workers and bosses.

The pandemic has changed many things, but we can’t allow hard-won rights to be one of them. Worker protections should not cease to apply just because the work is no longer taking place in an office. 

Main image credit: Getty

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