The pandemic, homeworking and automation

Submitted by martin on 24 May, 2020 - 5:55 Author: Bruce Robinson
work from home

The Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed the way people are working. Some of these changes, driven by the need to contain the virus, are likely to become established in the long-term.

The most obvious change has been in the number of people working from home. About half the workforce is able to work from home. Those who can’t include most of the workers involved in face-to-face interaction with the public and those in manufacturing and construction.

Before the lockdown only about 5% of the workforce worked from home. These were predominantly highly skilled and paid workers, largely in information or communication jobs or management and concentrated in London and the south-east. They have been joined in recent years by growing numbers of workers who made at least some income from online work at home. There is also a long-term group of traditional homeworkers, mainly women working on low-paid, low-tech jobs such as making clothes and freelancers.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in April 2020 49% of the UK workforce was working at home. This includes most clerical, information and communication workers. BT have given their call centre workers the choice of working from home and Twitter has made all its staff homeworkers. This is likely to persist after the emergency, though probably not at the same level.

From the bosses’ point of view, homeworking saves costs on offices and may enable more flexibility in how many people to employ and on what contracts. And there is evidence that it results in a rise in productivity. Despite better means for the surveillance of remote online workers, there remain problems of control and organisation, even though Zoom etc may make face-to-face meetings less necessary.

The most likely form of working from home to be offered to established workers is a mixture of home and office working, say two or three days a week at home. This makes it possible for fewer workers to be in an office at one time while maintaining throughput by means of staggered shifts in order to physically distance.

From the workers’ point of view, homeworking saves the time and cost of commuting, makes it easier to balance work with home demands such as childcare, benefits disabled workers and may enable a more flexible choice of when to work.

There are however serious problems with it. There are the dangers of isolation, socially and from workmates who can help or provide support with the job or discuss work issues. Some evidence shows that homework in the pandemic has led to increased work beyond agreed hours.

The blurring of boundaries between work and home makes it easier to be expected to be available at any time and for women to be expected to perform domestic labour alongside working. Plus, not every home provides a suitable space for work and it may be the environment for abuse or bad mental health, as the lockdown has shown.

Homework also creates a danger of two-tier workforces with a core that does at least some work from the office and casual workers taken on as part of the gig economy to work at home, often to perform individual tasks ("microwork"). Such workers are growing in number.

Broadly, our aim should be to ensure that homeworking benefits the worker. Most basic to that is the individual worker’s right to choose whether to work from home and how to divide time between home and office; and unions’ right to bargain about and control the location of work (more detailed demands about how homeworking should be structured here). But working from home makes union organisation more difficult. Unions may not have direct access to the workers and, in the same way as with postal ballots, their being at home will remove the workers from the feeling of a workplace collectivity and decision making.

Another major shift that will now be accelerated is automation, particularly of those jobs that have been crucial including retailing, cleaning, and care and others where there is a risk of contracting Covid-19 (for example, sorting recycled waste). Fear of contracting the virus will make automated activities more normal and acceptable.

Robots have been used for food deliveries (in Milton Keynes, where the roads are straight) and by Walmart for scrubbing floors. PayPal is moving to use chatbots for dealing with routine customer queries. In Japan, where it is more culturally acceptable, robots have been used to provide company for old people and the care sector is being targeted for automation. Amazon prototyped a shop without cashiers using goods tagged for wireless and customers’ phones before the pandemic, which, though a failure, points to one way things may go as a result of avoiding physical contact.

A recent survey of over 2000 executives worldwide showed about 35% of them planning to bring forward plans for automation are as a result of the pandemic. If automation is aimed in the short-term to minimise human contact, in the long-term the attraction for employers is the lower cost of running machinery compared with paying workers. In the coming recession, costs of finance and of the technology will drop to make automation affordable for many employers.

The pandemic has opened up many issues about how and how much we work, and what we do. The labour movement needs to formulate and fight for its own specific demands rather than letting things slide into a “new normal” over which we have no control.

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