Monday 17 August 2020

Working from home, working in fear

[There is a] religious element [in attitudes toward work]: the idea that dutiful submission even to meaningless work under another's authority is a form of moral self-discipline that makes you a better person.


[T]he morality of "you're on my time" has become so naturalised that most of us have learned to see the world from the point of view of the [employer] - to the extent than even members of the public are encouraged to see themselves as bosses and feel indignant if  public servants (say, transit workers) seem to be working in a casual or dilatory fashion, let alone just lounging around.


There seems a broad consensus not so much even that work is good but that not working is very bad; that anyone who is not slaving away harder than he'd like at something he doesn't especially enjoy is a a bad person, a scrounger, a skiver, a contemptible parasite unworthy of sympathy or public relief.  

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

As we all struggle to come to terms with changed working practices in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, there's a rather unpleasant point I see being made about working from home with increasingly regularity. 

I should probably set out my own view from the outset. I've been working remotely, barring a handful of office days, for five months. I personally prefer it, as I find it enables me to get on with the 'thinky' aspect of my job more easily. However I do feel the need for face to face meetings too, so anticipate a mix of home and office working in future. One thing I *hate* is commuting. Aside from the fact that it's a pain, I feel it's time wasted. If I do the school run in the morning if I work from home I can start work properly by about 9.10 whereas it's nearer 10 if I go to the office, and I find eating into my working day that way stressful.  

I also recognise I'm in a privileged position in that I can work from home easily. This is not the case for many working people either because of their occupation, their living arrangements or other factors. And I take the point that a lot of people find the social aspect of office working important. Working from home should, of course, be a choice offered to people. 

Or should it? Because what I see argued with increasing regularity is that employees need to stop working from home and get back in the office, for their own sake. The argument is that while those working from home might be enjoying it for now, they should be careful what they wish for. If their job can be performed from home, it can be performed from anywhere. Companies might see the benefit of reduced office costs from remote working, but might also see that this could be taken even further, with jobs performed remotely from other countries with (obviously) lower labour costs.

This point has been made by a variety of people including Helena Morrissey, Kirsty Allsop, Allister Heath and, most notably Luke Johnson. In the last case, there's a really (presumably deliberately) unpleasant edge to his comments. Those working from home are 'slackers', will miss out on promotion opportunities, and so on. The message is clear: working from home is risky, you're better off getting back in the office. 

As far as I am aware none of these people have a direct financial interest in office working. If they were the owners of Pret it might be a different story. In addition, the risk they are highlighting is, in essence, not a new one. If many jobs can be fulfilled remotely, and remote working can be done pretty much from anywhere these days, then the risk of your job being off-shored is already there. Perhaps you working from home now has increased the visibility (to employers) of the viability of remote working, but it did not create the risk (if it is a risk). The technology that enables remote working did that.

So if the risk of off-shoring is there in any case, then what message are those working from home being given? It seems like they are being encouraged to work from the office because this will make them visible so their employer does not think about off-shoring their role. That boils down to encouraging presentee-ism as an employment protection tactic for workers. Not exactly what you would expect from exponents of the efficiency of the private sector, but it does chime with David Graeber's view that a lot of private sector white collar work is... errr... bullshit. 

Just for the sake of working these points through I'll assume that someone like Luke Johnson is not primarily motivated by a desire to protect the job prospects of workers who are not in his direct employment. So what else might be going on in seeking to frighten employees back into the office? 

Part of it is undoubtedly a desire to monitor. If people become 'slackers' working from home then get them back where you can keep an eye on them. (Incidentally, this doesn't seem to offer much support to off-shoring as a response. If I can't trust someone located in the same country as me to be sufficiently incentivised to do their job remotely, does paying someone less money to do the job even further away seem likely to solve the problem?) 

There is a strong moralising element in all this too. Part of the criticism of people working from home is that they 'enjoy' it too much. The implication being that a less hateful working experience is somehow too 'easy' and work should be 'hard' (which we see played out in politics through the valorisation of 'hard-working' families). 

I think this gets to the nub of it really. As Graeber suggests in Bullshit Jobs, behind a lot of the bizarre employment practice in the private sector sits a (usually) implicit theory of motivation. This is that people will shirk unless monitored, prodded and so on. A shift to more working from home entails a degree of trust on both sides. Do we allow employees self-determination, or do we insist that they must be in a certain location where their performance can be monitored? (leaving aside the obvious point that technology enables monitoring of remote working too.)

Some of the comments in relation to working from home suggest a lack of trust in people to be self-motivated, and are certainly perceived that way by employees. My own view is that lack of trust in turn creates its own problems. If people feel they are not trusted to get on with their work they will tend to await clear instructions so they don't get it 'wrong'. A hierarchical, monitoring approach to work seems to be unlikely to breed innovation and creativity.

To threaten employees with the risk of losing their job if they seek to work from home is especially unpleasant, and more of a cattle prod than a prod. Job security is important to the large majority of people at work, yet is also perceived to be moving in the wrong direction (according to polling in this). Playing on the fear of unemployment to achieve monitoring and control does not feel like 'stakeholder capitalism', especially given that the current shift to working from home is being driven by a public health risk.

To build on this last point, I wonder how a company going down the route of off-shoring jobs in the current environment would be perceived. Recent polling shows that a very large majority of the public think that while there is no vaccine available workers should be able to decide whether or not to return to the office. If a company laid off UK-based workers working from home because of Covid and replaced them with overseas ones I'm not sure the most common response would be "well, they had it coming".

Finally, we should acknowledge the fact that if this argument is being made means that the question is being asked in some companies. That alone should be a reminder, if you need it, that there are conflicting interests within the firm that can never be wished away, despite the 'win-win' boosterism that is prevalent in ESG-land.

PS. A couple more bits from David Graeber. Experience during the pandemic has only reinforced some of his points.

Shit jobs tend to be be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. Those who work in shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but are also held in low esteem for that very reason. But at least they know they're doing something useful. Those who work in bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers - as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it's all based on a lie - as, indeed, it is.


[I]magine if a certain class of people were to simply vanish... If we all woke up one morning and discovered that not only nurses, garbage collectors, and mechanics, but for that matter, bus drivers, grocery store workers, firefighters, or short-order chefs had been whisked away into another dimension, the results would be equally catastrophic. If elementary school teachers were to vanish, most schoolchildren would likely celebrate for a day or two, but the long-term effects would be if anything even more devastating... The same cannot be said of hedge fund managers, political consultants, marketing gurus, lobbyists, corporate lawyers...