The pandemic has seen a surge in remote working. Collective agreements are needed to ensure individual autonomy, rather than monitored isolation, is the outcome.
In the years to come, we may look back at 2020 as an inflection point—a pivotal moment when large numbers of workers began to reorganise their lives away from a worksite, towards new models of working at or near home. The global pandemic forced a sudden, disruptive shift in work, supported by technology which quickly adapted to make continued activity possible on a larger scale than ever imagined. Many predict that we shall never go back to the workplaces of the past.
Such teleworking has been gradually increasing for several decades, typically associated with jobs that are easily measurable and highly autonomous, often involving high levels of independent judgement. It has been most prevalent in northern Europe and, in the United States, in areas with long commute times and highly-priced office space, where both the employer and employee are incentivised to adopt the model.
But the pandemic has proved that a much wider range of work can be effectively performed away from a worksite, including work which is less skilled and autonomous. In fact, during the lockdown an estimated 40 per cent of all workers in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were able to continue to work from home.
Few employers have yet to resume work with the full complement of employees in an onsite setting and a growing number have announced they do not intend to do so. One survey of chief financial officers concluded that 74 per cent of companies intended to keep some proportion of their workforce on a permanent remote status.
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Nationwide Insurance in the US will close five of its large offices, asking employees to work from home. Teleperformance, the world’s largest call-centre company, estimates that around 150,000 of its employees will not return to a worksite. As one employer put it, ‘The drop in productivity is more than compensated by the fact that I can eliminate the expense of running an office.’
Current technology was already well positioned to take advantage of the exodus from the worksite, enabling highly-evolved remote collaboration—through tools such as Zoom and Teams—as well as offering management support. The ‘fissuring’ of work has meanwhile made it possible to break some jobs into tasks which can be easily measured and handled from anywhere, thus expanding the universe of positions suitable for remote work.
For example, in insurance, many jobs have become routinised, with a complement of artificial intelligence to assist with screening claims. Call-centre work previously conducted in large centres with roving management can now be handled from home, with non-stop surveillance cameras or AI mechanisms monitoring the content, tone and outcome of every call.
What does this mean for workers? Working from home can be desirable, indeed a life-saver for many, especially those facing long commutes alongside family responsibilities. It can help restore some work-life balance, so long as it is accompanied by the ‘right to disconnect’ at the end of a reasonable day.
The situation is however ripe for abuse. It is only ‘win-win’ when there are measures in place to ensure dignity, to preserve the employment relationship and to enable freedom of association.
Unions have been negotiating the conditions for remote work with employers for quite some time. In the banking and insurance industries, provisions have been in place since 1999. These collective agreements have ensured the choice of remote work is voluntary, there is a right to ‘return’ to the office and career ladders and equal treatment are protected. Unions have also led the way in advancing the right to disconnect when working from home.
As demand grows from employers to increase those working remotely, these agreements will be put to the test, and regulation will be required to foster the bargaining process. Nevertheless, there is practice on which to draw.
Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of workers who are likely to continue working from home have no workplace representation. Nor, beyond Europe, do many governments regulate this new reality of working life. In the US private sector, there are virtually no agreements covering white-collar workers. And while that is an extreme case, workers in white-collar private services are as lacking in union representation as any group in the world.
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Unions must also guard against remote work becoming a pathway towards the informalisation and ‘Uberization’ of these workers. It is easy to imagine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘platform’ work could blur, as work devolves into commercial contracts, such as ‘pay by project’ independent-contractor arrangements, or old-fashioned piece work easily outsourced to lower-cost destinations.
Nor should this change in the location of work represent a transfer of wealth from working people into corporate pockets. Conditions should not be worsened for employees who remain at home. In addition, workers should be compensated for the use of their home, utilities and the internet. And of course the employer should retain responsibility to provide equipment and a safe workplace. We have seen during the pandemic that some call-centre workers transferred to ‘home work’ have been required to purchase the company’s wi-fi package—based on the claim that they are saving on commuting.
While employers have always measured employee productivity, AI-enabled monitoring can be highly intrusive and should not be allowed unless it has been negotiated with a union representative. Data and privacy policies should not be unilaterally imposed.
Under current models, freedom of association is nearly impossible to realise when workers are dispersed across regions or even countries. We must revise our freedom-of-association rules and definitions and allow for meaningful opportunities for unions to communicate with workers—for example through digital meeting spaces—if this fundamental right is for millions of workers to be anything other than an echo of yesteryear.
Women are most likely to choose to work from home, because they carry the heavier load of care responsibility there. There must be proactive steps to ensure they are not ‘forgotten’ or siloed and therefore severed from career opportunities and mentoring. It is unlikely that permanent remote status will be a ticket to success in most organisations.
The impact of remote work on productivity is a subject of debate and many will believe they are more productive at home, especially during periods of intense, individualised work such as writing projects. One US survey found that professionals are more productive with up to 15 hours of work at home per week. We shall soon know more about the longer-term impacts of full-time home working, which will certainly vary by sector.
Especially with full-time working from home, however, there is likely to be a negative impact on creativity, team and company culture and collaboration, which is why Facebook ended its earlier ‘working from home’ experiment some years ago. (It has since announced a new remote policy for top performers.) The isolation from colleagues associated with full-time remote work should also not be underestimated as a mental-health challenge for many. What kinds of personal contact will replace the coffee-break chat?
Nor can we overstate the dramatic impact this transformation may have on our communities, in particular our cities. White-collar workers pour into cities every day, using public transport, local lunch spots, dry cleaners and other services. What will happen if these workers stay away? While we can celebrate a positive impact on the climate, navigating this transition will require active planning.
We are, truly, at a inflection point and, although there are many positives, there are plenty of red flags. Workers’ representatives must be at the tables of power—with employers, governments and international bodies—to negotiate the conditions of this transition. That is the only way to make sure that, as the workplace of the past is left behind, workers’ interests are not.
Christy Hoffman is the general secretary of UNI Global Union, the global union federation for the services industries representing more than 20 million workers in 150 countries. Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.