Working from home – an employer win? (3 min read)

Have you been working from home and enjoying it? Perhaps you one of those to whom it has brought increased stress and isolation? Maybe you have struggled with the pressures of work, family, time and space?  Some big employers are saying that they like the idea of their white collar staff working from home. Others seem to want people back as soon as possible.

So how is this debate playing out in their heads?

Employers have a problem if they think home working reduces our outputs. But if it decreases their inputs then employer support for it becomes easier to understand. So what are they thinking about?

Thinking about the downside for employers

Whether we produce a material thing or a service we have an output. This will have a quantitative element – the number of things we produce. It will also have a qualitative one – how good are they?

The most obvious downside of working at home for employers is that they may lose control over our output.

In the eighteenth century most industrial work was ‘home work’.  But many budding business people thought that this gave too much control to the workers. The factory certainly offered the possibility of technological improvement. It also brought a tighter control over the work effort. There would be fixed times of starting and leaving work and supervision throughout the day.  There could also be tighter controls over the quality of the things produced.

Today we are much more heavily socialised to work ‘voluntarily’.  Employees need less direct supervision. Modern employers also have something that nineteenth century employers did not. They have control of information technology and methods of intrusive performance evaluation.  

Perhaps the  bigger ‘output’ risk is the long term negative effect in terms of the passing on, and even the accumulation, of tacit knowledge. We learn by doing from one another.   This often seems to work better on a face-to-face basis. Learning involves looking over people’s shoulders. It can even involve chatting – perhaps over coffee.

These chats do something else – they help to identify problems. They allow for information to be passed up and down informally. They can also be a source of innovation and good practice. Ideas get discussed, problems get identified and solved before they get too big.   The trouble is these potential losses are harder to see. They are often hidden or ‘latent conditions’.

Employers may be more likely to focus on what they see as the upside for them.

The Three Parts of the Employer Upside

Reducing the capital input?

The more we work from home the less employers will have to pay for the buildings in which we normally work. These costs will not disappear. They will become our costs. Logically everyone needs a pay rise to cover such costs. But tracing what is involved is not easy. 

Employers take on the capital costs of the buildings and the equipment in them. There are   maintenance costs. Below are some estimates of the costs per 100 sq metres for different types of organisations.

Then there are the activity costs. Think, for example, of the IT staff or the people working in catering, maintaining rest rooms etc. When the pandemic started you could not buy a printer for love or money.  Did people claim back from their employers for the printers, ink, paper? What about the electricity and internet bill? The more we pay the less our real wage.  (1)

Increasing the Labour Input for free?

There is evidence that when working from home we do more work for free. In the UK, the ONS has published statistics suggesting that those working from home do more unpaid overtime. We also take fewer sick days. It is not clear whether this is because we get less sick or because we work more when we are sick. Either way the advantage to employers is obvious).

This free labour input is also gendered – who will do the unpaid cleaning  in the home office and make the refreshments for the home worker?

Reducing Resistance?

The third gain for employers is weaker workers’ organisation.  On our own we are vulnerable. Those working from home are more taken for granted and are more likely not to get promoted and be stuck at the bottom. When we come together, we can discuss our grievances and combine our demands. Isolation affects the practicalities of formal trade union organisation. It also weakens informal organisation.

A clue to its value is that employers will often announce bad news on a Fridays. They know that is harder for people to get together over the weekend to discuss fighting back. 

Part of the argument about productivity gains over the last decades has been over whether they are real and how they are being achieved.  But the sharpest arguments have been who gets what and how employers have been able to gain more from them than their employees.

We should make sure that we look at the issue of homeworking with this big problem in mind.

You can find a discussion of productivity measurement issues in chapter 3 of my Productivity, Agenda, 2020. If you check the blog home page you will also references to more stuff on these issues.

  • In theory if an employer does not pay for such things, we could try claiming back tax on them. But we then have to supply the time and energy (and knowledge) to take advantage of this.

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