Does remote working have to mean greater inequality?

Remote working needs to be part of a wider vision for the future of work.

Business woman having a video call with coworker


Earlier this week the Resolution Foundation published a report on the impact of Covid on economic inequality. It found that Covid has slightly reduced employment and house price gaps across Britain, but hasn’t reduced wider economic divisions, particularly in some more ethnically diverse, deprived parts around London. It also said that working from home has had a bigger impact on individual workers and firms than on local economies, with much of the change taking place in the same more prosperous local areas. This is because of the nature of those who are able to work from home and the places they tend to live in. It says working from home could even widen the economic gap if those who benefit from it tend to be wealthier commuters in the south east region.

From the usual quarters there were the usual headlines, but the genie is out of the bottle on remote working and no amount of hoping things will return to ‘normal’ is going to get it back in. The challenge is to make it more equitable. What’s more, it is still very early days and we have yet to see the longer term impact of hybrid working on, for instance, how many women are able to stay in or progress in careers and address their low numbers at the senior level of most organisations.

So what does making it more equitable mean when only certain workers can work remotely? Firstly, it is vital that greater choice around flexible working in all its forms is extended to all and that the future of work is considered in the round.

It is also surely a mistake to think working from home on its own can make a deeply unequal country less economically unequal.  That requires a whole range of measures that address issues such as ensuring that the industries of the future are evenly spread across the country and have a diverse employee profile at all levels and that a mix of industries is widely available so that one particular area is not adversely affected by a sustained hit to one sector – in the report it talks about the Covid impact on areas that are reliant on airports, for instance. It requires good quality local jobs and incentivising higher paid remote roles in areas outside the more affluent south east as they do in some parts of the rural US.

It also requires good infrastructure, including childcare, properly funded education, health and social care resources, libraries and other support services. And it requires the sustained targeting of funds to those areas where there are most problems, and not just for party political reasons. It requires lifelong learning and skills training, particularly for technology-related jobs [which will basically be all jobs] – it’s not enough to direct training to young people. Older people need it too and possibly more, given they are likely to have to work beyond an age where many will be physically capable of doing strenuous manual jobs.

It requires tackling the huge gap between the highest and the lowest paid and ensuring that everyone benefits from fast-changing work trends, including remote working, but also automation and the impact of Artificial Intelligence. Leaving it to the market won’t work. In short, it requires some sort of economic vision for the future of work and a commitment to reducing inequality in all its forms, not because it might provide short-term votes in certain areas, but because it is better for all of us.

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