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Labour could not be more wrong about working from home

Keir Starmer’s plan for a ‘right to work from home’ will let work take over our lives.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK

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According to an 86-page draft policy manifesto, leaked earlier this month, a Labour government would ‘make flexible working the default from day one for all workers, except where it is not reasonably feasible’. A week later, Sir Keir Starmer confirmed in an interview with The Times that a legal right to work from home is ‘very important to us’.

Labour’s advocacy of working from home (WFH), ‘except where it is not reasonably feasible’, tells us a lot about its estrangement from vast swathes of the British populace. This is a policy aimed almost entirely at the laptop classes. It effectively ignores all those who work in manufacturing, shops, agriculture, healthcare, transport… the list is endless. Many people in Britain still work with their hands and cannot do their jobs working from home. Yet Labour has almost nothing to say to them.

Arguably, an even bigger problem with Labour’s policy is that working from home is not actually in the interests of those who can work virtually. The people who really benefit most are employers.

Starmer seems to think that WFH will boost the economy. He claims that allowing employees to work from home will raise UK productivity levels. We’ve heard similar arguments before. In the 2000s, virtually every management consultant urged employers to allow ‘play’ at work. They claimed that this would ‘unleash’ and ‘unlock’ creativity. Now policymakers claim that working from home can perform a similar function, raising productivity by removing the stresses of the office.

Neither contention is true. Table footie, air-hockey tables and funky canteens in the workplace have arguably done more to deepen Britain’s productivity crisis than resolve it. And when WFH advocates point to the hours people save in terms of not having to commute, this says more about Britain’s shocking transport network than about increased productivity in the home.

The truth is, in many instances, working from home simply allows employers to extract more hours from their staff. After all, even the most liberal employer may be willing to ask employees to work in the time they might usually be commuting. Either by working later into the evening, or perhaps by working at the weekend.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those working from home work for longer hours than they did in the office. They do indeed ‘get more done’, but only by working for longer. That doesn’t amount to higher productivity – just more work. Working from home really is not as progressive and liberating as Starmer claims it is.

Commuting can certainly be unpleasant. But it can also allow psychological preparation before and decompression after work. Above all, this can provide a clear boundary between work and home. Working from home makes the distinction between work and leisure far more porous.

Of course, concentrating one’s thoughts in an open-plan office can be hard. Yet the home has its own distractions and difficulties. Domestic broadband can often be unreliable. And being unable to talk to colleagues face-to-face can impede progress on collective and individual projects.

Work-from-home arrangements also allow employers to monitor and surveil staff in new, more intrusive forms. Applications, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, mean that human-resources departments can see more of our home arrangements. Technologies that allow IT surveillance – ‘bossware’, or what IT provider RemoteDesk calls ‘work-from-home obedience’ – will expand in use.

Above all, WFH will further atomise Britain’s workforce. This will especially affect younger workers, who have historically benefited from formal and informal mentoring from their older, more experienced colleagues. It will also undermine workplace solidarity, make strike action harder and comradeship more difficult. And it will exacerbate Britain’s loneliness problem.

Working from home deprives workers of the benefits of working with others. And it undermines workers’ privacy at home. Starmer may present a right to work from home as a victory for office workers and a boon for the economy. But it will be nothing of the sort.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

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Topics Politics UK

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