Home Working? The present and future of how and where we work in the context of COVID-19.
|Remote working for many white-collar workers and managers became a sudden reality three months ago as UK workplaces went into lockdown. What has the experience for these remote employees been like, how long do they think it will last and what does the experience tell us about the future of work? During June 2020 Professor Jonathan Morris of Cardiff Business School and Professor John Hassard of Manchester University interviewed employees from a variety of large organisations to find out.|
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on where (and how) people work. This study provides a quick snapshot of its impact on managerial and white-collar workers within large organisations. These groups are of interest as they are not generally directly customer-facing and so are likely to be the last group of employees who physically go back to work. Furthermore, when it is safe for them to do so, trends in flexible work are likely to be exacerbated with large companies maybe questioning why they need to invest in such costly office space and employees wondering why they spent so long commuting on a regular basis.
Our research over the last 15 years (see note 1) has found that digital technologies have transformed the location of work from the office primarily to home and has made working time more flexible to a certain degree. This has offered managers the opportunity to balance work and other obligations but also, in a context of extreme working pressures, made work all encompassing. The changes between our studies in the early noughties and ten or so years later were also profound; in terms of the types of technologies used (US managers in the early 2000s introduced us to the Blackberry), the pervasiveness of these trends with managers regularly working in the evenings and weekends and the expectations of both organisations and their managers that this was the ‘new normal’.
So when the pandemic struck and people were sent home and in a short period of time were expected to work from home, this struck us as something very interesting to study. What has been the impact of the new home working imperative and does it signal new ways of working in the longer term?
To investigate this, during June 2020 we interviewed managers and white-collar employees based at seven large UK organisations that we had worked with previously. These cover employers in both high and lower tech sectors, manufacturing and services and the private and public sectors. Interviewees were asked about their personal circumstances, experiences of home working and whether they anticipated that the pandemic would have a fundamental effect on the nature and location of work in the future. We conducted thirty-five interviews and so our findings are therefore not ‘scientific’ as such – this is a very quick piece of research with a relatively small sample. However, it does offer to some pointers as to the impact of home working during the crisis and to the future of work.
Many respondents expected to be working from home for an extended period, at least to September/October and some expecting it to last until the end of 2020. An advantage cited by all was the lack of a commute and/or travelling and its impact on their work-life balance. Some of the responses were touching, particularly for males with young children but across the sample, with respondents citing less stress as a consequence. This was particularly pronounced with commuting into London and other larger cities but was also related to travelling normally associated with work.
Unsurprisingly, parents (of both genders) cited significant problems with childcare and home schooling, with many citing this as ‘extremely challenging’, managing work by collectively working round the clock and at weekends and reporting ‘a lack of any division between work and parenting’. There was some evidence of females facing considerable pressures. Two managers were single parents, while in other couples women, having already taken a previous ‘hit’ to their career prospects in order to have families, were bearing greater responsibilities for child care as they earned less – a finding confirmed by other studies of the gender impact of the crisis (see Note 2).
Employees found that work/non-work divides were extremely blurred, they found it difficult to ‘turn off’ from work and had a belated appreciation of the sociability of office work. Others found the situation very isolating; work monotonous and extremely challenging with a lack of downtime and being continually ‘on-call’, stimulation overload, communications problematic and ‘Zoom’ very demanding physically. A telecoms company manager, for example, reported nine half-an-hour meetings that day which was typical. Elsewhere, a female manager observed:
‘Workload has increased significantly due to the nature of my work. In addition, there is now far less down time in the work day – I’m constantly on calls (either scheduled meetings or people calling as soon as my Skype light goes green). Stimulus overload; I’m simultaneously getting bombarded with emails, Yammer Messages, Teams Messages, Skype Instant Messages, phone calls on Skype and phone calls on Teams (we have 2 separate telephony systems so I’ll be on a call on one and getting called on the other). No ‘thinking time’ or ‘doing time’ as diary constantly booked up with calls. Regularly sat at my desk for 4+ hours without moving at all. Conference call fatigue – discomfort of wearing a headset all day, jumping from one call to the next on a range of topics feels more tiring than a normal day in the office. Trying to home school two children and work is extremely challenging – children have a schedule from school which runs from 9am to 3:30 with set tasks needing to be done at set times. Frequently trying to juggle work calls and field questions and help the children with their schoolwork (and just provide quality general supervision) does cause significant additional pressure’.
Thus far we have reported on the findings, some of which are less or more surprising. However, the million-dollar question is what implications this has for the way work is organised and where it is located in the future, post-COVID (hopefully). Opinions differed. Some were sceptical. A male manager had very poor experience of the new working arrangements associated with home working and COVID:
‘From my perspective not many benefits. I walked to work before and had a routine. I had had a period in my life before doing excessive hours in the office and then again at home in evenings and weekends. This way of working is intrusive. The office is always with me. WhatsApp’s go outside core hours. The personal laptop is now combined with work so has to be hidden away as it’s a reminder that the office is now my home. Management is now by email, is not thought out, requires immediate action and is chaotically delivered at all times of day and night. Plans to action your day are routinely disrupted by the volume of out of hours emails, many of which are simply white noise. There is no structure and the ability to drill technical ability into employees is finished by remote interaction which does not even begin to replace MBWA (management by wandering around). Employees feel very alone and under empowered.
OK, there are massive benefits in flexible working and we have been exploring this for a couple of years. The ability to work from home for good life balance or for work which can be better attacked from home is undeniable. The clamour about this being the “new normal” is fatuous. I understand that for many this temporary working is exciting and fun but work in my area is based on shared learning and experiences. No-one was ever going to get on a plane again after 9/11. Look what happened there. Economic reality and the basic need for human interaction mean that we will still need all our offices and our employees to attend on some basis of regularity’.
By contrast, others were more hopeful of change. Some argued that developments that they had argued for for years had suddenly materialised, while others noted individual and societal benefits, for example, work-life balance ones and wider environmental benefits. However, the interviews pointed to considerable downsides for employees and organisational inefficiencies. A number noted that a quick face -to-face meeting which often cleared up confusions were lost in the new normal. Most predicted a more flexible hybrid model of home and office working, although the ‘loss’ of organisational control and associated difficulties should not be underestimated.
(1) The authors have researched the impact of organisational change upon managerial work dating back to the 1990s. This work has included Management and New Organisational Forms: Middle Managers in the UK, USA and Japan, 2001-03 funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Managerial Work: International Comparisons, 2016-20 funded by the Alliance Foundation. Key publications from this research include:
– Hassard J, McCann L and Morris J (2009) Managing in the Modern Corporation: The Intensification of Managerial Work in the USA, UK and Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
– Hassard J and Morrsi J (2018) Contrived competition and manufactured uncertainty: Understanding managerial job insecurity narratives in large corporations. Work, Employment and Society 32: 546-80.
(2) How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? IFS Briefing Note.
– Women are bearing the emotional brunt of the Coronavirus crisis. The Fawcett Society/IPSOS MORI.
– UK society regressing back to 1950s for many women, warn experts.