Much of the British workforce have a job which is some variation on a simple theme: sit at a desk, send emails, make phone calls, and go to the occasional meeting.
These jobs encompass the well-paid executives and some of the lowest-paid call centre workers. For decades, we have been told that these jobs can only be done in purpose-built offices. But in just a few weeks, that myth has been shattered. A staggering proportion of the UK’s jobs can be done from home – or indeed anywhere. This week, the government has indicated that it may enshrine in law the right to work from home. It’s something the left should fight to shape.
Working from home is often advertised as a perk of high-status jobs. It is a privilege conferred on those who can be trusted to use it responsibly, not a right that the rabble at the bottom of the income-ladder can use and abuse. It’s no coincidence office blocks take inspiration from 19th century factories: they are intended to be sites of surveillance and control. Just as a Victorian overseer could glance over the factory floor to see his underlings at their machines, the modern manager can look across a sea of computers in an open-plan office to make sure no one is on Facebook.
Any employment relationship, by definition, gives your employer control over what you do. But if they have control over where you are too then their power is greater still. They control not just what you do, but how you do it, where you do it and, even, what you’re wearing while you do it. These are powers that employers are reluctant to relinquish.
Of course, this power relationship is never put so explicitly. If it is mentioned at all, it is through oblique references to higher productivity in the office environment. More often than not, it’s a relationship that will go ignored completely. Instead, requests to work from home are refused on grounds of practicality: “we need to be in the same place to meet effectively”, “we are not properly equipped for remote-working”. Yet many workers have found that these apparent obstacles quickly evaporated during the pandemic. When the choice for the employer is no longer ‘home or office’, but ‘working from home or not working at all’, working from home is no longer so difficult.
But what happens after the crisis is over? Do we all go back to normal, pretending that it is impossible to work from home? Or do workers fight to make working at home a right? The government’s commitments so far are tentative and minimal – and they may turn out to be only an emergency measure for the pandemic. But the labour movement should take it much further, to make it permanent and shape it in the interests of ordinary people.
The benefits could be massive. For the individual, the right to work at home could let you arrange your work more easily around the rest of your life. You’d have more freedom to use your break as you wish or perhaps even rearrange your hours completely. You’d have more free time too. In the UK we spend, on average, 221 hours a year on our daily commute – that’s a month of unpaid work every year. The right to work from home could reduce work-related travel time to just a fraction of that.
And it’s not just the individual who would benefit. Taken up on a large scale, a right to work from home could transform our urban geography. For one thing, the wild disparity in housing costs across the country would be tempered – after all, if you barely visit the office then you won’t pay a high premium to live near it.
Meanwhile, it would rejuvenate local high streets and town centres as more people spend their money in their local community, rather than the extractive multi-national chains that thrive in commuter hotspots. This would have a knock-on effect for those who cannot work from home: if economic activity becomes decentralised then you are more likely to find work near where you live. Better still, the right to work from home would play a part in reducing emissions – it’s significant that air pollution in UK cities has dropped by 40% during the lockdown.
Would the right to work from home solve the exploitative dynamics of wage labour? Clearly not – it is no silver bullet. And there are plenty of questions to answer. What would happen to so-called ‘auxiliary’ workers who staff a building, like cleaners and security? What support should there be to make the home an accessible, safe and healthy work environment? What impact would there be on loneliness, wellbeing and people’s work-life balance? These issues merit more attention; it may be that the right to work from home for some of the week ought to be balanced with an equal and opposite right to a communal workspace for the rest. And of course, we cannot forget that for many jobs, working from home will always be impossible.
But if the left is absent from the debate then it will not shape the outcome. The right to work from home could be a transformative legacy of this pandemic – we should fight to shape it.
James McAsh is a primary school teacher, a Labour councillor and an activist in the National Education Union.