Could mass homeworking bring better conditions?

Mass homeworking has brought a welcome spotlight on the things that have passed under the radar.

Sickness at work


There are things that traditional home workers have had to put up with for years that have got little publicity. One of them is the fact that while, yes, there are savings to be made from not having to commute, there are also costs associated with homeworking. They include office equipment, tech support and things like heating. For employers, there are clearly big savings to be made from reduced utility costs – particularly in smart buildings – and ultimately from reducing office estate.

While some employers have always paid for home office equipment and while you can claim for a small amount in tax relief if you work from home, I’m willing to bet that many homeworkers have paid for the extra costs out of their own pockets. This is in large part because homeworking has been seen as a favour. The attitude in the early days was not only should you pay for the additional costs, but also perhaps take a pay cut for the privilege of working from home. So it is interesting to see reports about heating costs in the press. I know several homeworkers who have sat in gloves with hot water bottles on their laps during the winter in order to save on the heating bills so it’s good to see this being discussed.

Another thing many traditional homeworkers do is bend the working day to suit their schedule. So, instead of a lunch hour, they take time off to do the school run, for instance. That way they capitalise on the non-children time they have to work. This is even more the case now with few after school activities and more parents in this position. It means 3pm is a very bad time to have a meeting if you want to include homeworking parents. Of course, organisations cannot be run purely based on parents’ needs, but if a meeting is in large part about working parents, as some are, surely there’s a need to do a bit of rethinking there.

There are several such meetings that I have missed due to this lack of forethought, which would be okay if the meetings were recorded, but they often aren’t.

The other week is illustrative of the problem. I was asked to do an online presentation. The only time slot available was 3.30pm. I have to pick up from three schools. My partner was away. I figured it was not impossible, however. I would get daughter two to go on the train and tube [a round trip of at least 1.5 hours], given they are not allowed to hang around after school any more and the forecast was for heavy rain. I pick up only son at 3pm – via masked walkthrough system – then get to daughter two around 10 past. I could be back by 3.25 and if I left my computer on I could slide straight into the presentation. Sorted. Luck seemed to be going my way when I discovered that daughter two in fact had an inset day. Even better.

However, on the morning of the day in question the meeting organisers suggested we start a bit earlier to do a tech run-through. Maybe 3.20pm. 3.20pm was probably logistically impossible, even without factoring in roadworks and the usual country traffic issues, eg, tractors. I said I would try to make it, but could be a couple of minutes late. I arrived at only son’s school. A be-visored teacher approached, looking stern. Only son had apparently written a swear word in chalk on the school playground. This was a serious offence, said the teacher, looking me straight in the eye as if I was a small child who had done something unforgivable. The head teacher had been informed. I wanted to say something about the fact that only son has been through a horrific, traumatic event, losing his big sister, and is a bit angry with the world so could they not be a bit empathetic and cut him some slack, but I was all too aware of the time. I whisked him away, got daughter three and managed to get home by 3.22pm, only to find the zoom thing wouldn’t let me in. I got in around 3.28pm and went straight into the presentation, a shortened version of a presentation I last did in person on the evening of 18th February, one day before my daughter was killed.

This is, of course, not a normal set of affairs, but the point I am trying to make is that 3-3.30pm is not a good time to be having a meeting if you want to include parents, who make up a lot of the workforce. I can do virtually any time at all after 9am and before 3am, but 3-3.30pm I just can’t, especially on zoom.

I was talking to someone recently who has asked her employer to move her lunch hour to 3pm so she can pick up her son as there is no after school facility. The employer suggested she get her older daughter to pick him up. She didn’t want to do this as the school journey is two bus rides away and her son has ADHD. The employer said if they changed her lunch hour everyone would want to change their lunch hour – it would “create a precedent” – and would not work when she was back in the office.

This kind of rigidity may seem arcane to many people, but for some employers it is still very much a thing. Just that little bit of empathy and flexibility, just for the short term, makes all the difference. As it was, the toing and froing over this in an already anxious context created further worry, and for what purpose? Many employers are being understanding, given the circumstances, but those that aren’t are causing unnecessary stress in an already highly stressful situation for everyone.

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