We urgently need an employees’ manifesto on working from home

Karlin Lillington: Our current use of tech is further eroding division between work and home

Communication technologies have become a central part of the way most of us live at the moment, enabling us to access entertainment, talk to friends, family and colleagues, and, in many cases, continue to work.

Nothing that new, you might say. Ever since email began its slow infiltration of work and then daily life some two decades ago, the way we connect has been forever altered.

However, today’s home and work tech capabilities have begun to create a clear coronavirus divide. For those who are in isolation at home for whatever reason (ie most of us), social and traditional media have presented and reinforced a narrative of idle time and boredom that technology helps fill.

Stream a film or TV series. View a live opera or symphony recording. Watch actors and singers and musicians now perform solo from home, reading a sonnet or singing an aria or playing a cello suite. Stream your favourite trad and rock musicians. Learn French. Visit museum galleries remotely. Try a cooking class. Learn to paint. Do a Zoom pub quiz. Teach yourself to cut your family’s hair from an online video. And have another podcast (there’s always another podcast).

Sure, I get all that, especially for those who aren’t in front-line medical services or performing equally essential jobs that make isolation possible for the majority of the population. Jobs that shamefully in the past were viewed as low-pay, marginal work and now are revealed for what they truly are, an essential adhesive holding society together in our time of need.

Daily exhortations

But then there are the others working from home, who listen in exhaustion to the daily exhortations to keep busy with this sourdough recipe or that fun indoor activity with the kids.

For what I will wager is a significant subgroup of the isolating, the same technologies that have gradually erased a healthy separation between home and work are now further obliterating that needed divide to an unsustainable degree.

Not only are many workforces expected to be always available – to their organisations, their bosses, their co-workers, their students, their clients – but they are also required to somehow architect the technological bridges that enable as much business-as-usual as possible, in a disaster-plan and infrastructure vacuum.

Few organisation boards or executive teams had “pandemic”, or seemingly any kind of catastrophic real-world disruption, on their risk registers. Therefore, they currently have few well-thought-out plans on how to use technologies in such a scenario, transition their employees to same, and ensure a clear work/life balance so that employees aren’t hyperworked and mega-stressed.

Workers' needs, expectations and rights can be elided far too easily once workers are divided

As a result, employees find they are also doing essential infrastructure work, trying to figure out how to maintain the functionality of their organisations and the continued delivery of services using technologies at scale that only weeks ago they might never have heard of.

In recent weeks, I’ve had numerous casual conversations that have all circled in on this common point. People are toiling on their own time to deliver, virtually, all the elements of what their job entails, but without the physical, or even technological, infrastructure of their workplaces.

What comes next

On top of this, they struggle with the “what comes next” part of the equation. Some organisations are still not taking badly needed decisions on how employees continue forward in the months ahead. This is particularly difficult for teachers and lecturers, who often aren’t being told if they should prepare to be in a classroom or online (or both) in September. As if they can easily flip between these modi operandi without weeks of advance planning, planning that is now being pushed further into what should be badly-needed time off after a desperate, upside-down spring term.

And this week, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey informed Twitter employees that henceforth, working from home is to be permanent for anyone who doesn't have to be in an office, physically accessing servers. Without doubt, this will be the future of work for many across diverse industries, as companies (and employees) realise many advantages of what is now so common it has its own three-letter acronym, WFH. This could even be the case at universities – one lecturer told me many students say they prefer online lectures as they are more time-convenient, plus the students can repeat-watch them for better comprehension.

While expanded WFH will bring many advantages, problems loom, problems that are more clearly visible now from our lockdown perspective.

Communications technologies had already positioned many employees – typically in industries, like tech, which have few unions, and weak employee bargaining power – into always-on mode, as far as their organisations were concerned.

Now, as organisation infrastructure and technology support is “nearshored” to home-based employees, many using now-essential “free” communications tech that also tracks and surveils user activity for a range of commercial reasons, we need a worker WFH manifesto and employer responsiveness. We all need to better understand the implications of these shifting workplaces.

Workers’ needs, expectations and rights can be elided far too easily once workers are divided, permanently and conveniently sequestered behind their own front doors.