Home working, now and beyond:  Are we moving to emancipating electronic cottages or alienation in the home?

In this article I explore various aspects of the changes in education and working practices which we are seeing in our colleges and universities as a result of the Coronavirus crisis.  I address health and safety, contractual and pedagogic issues.

Corona Virus Crisis: one of the greatest threats to health and safety in our lifetimes.

There is by now a good deal of information regarding Health and Safety (H&S) aspects of home working. How ‘good’ that information is depends on your perspective. Below I outline some of the information that UCU,ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive have compiled. As you will see it’s generic, largely focused on keeping us at work. This is a fillip to the ‘business as usual’ approach adopted by most post-16 Education institutions. Worryingly, in prison education services most of the health and safety regulations and  legalframeworks do not apply.

Educators who work in frontline health and care services are especially vulnerable, as are the students who are being rushed into service – some of it unpaid.  Note that the Health and Care Professions Council has just published its temporary register for Allied Health Professions (paramedics, etc.) and Social Workers in order that final year students can join the workforce early:

“…to ensure there are no regulatory barriers to the following two groups practising on a temporary basis: …Final year students, on UK approved programmes, who have completed all their clinical practice placements.”

This will require considerable extra work, at no notice, for students and educators: this is no longer a H&S issue it’s a life-and-death matter. Staff and students are being sent onto the front line with insufficient, inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Irrespective of Government guidance, NHS staff have been left at risk of contracting Covid 19, and are working in fear that lives will be lost  This is a serious responsibility that we cannot allow employers to ignore.  We need less saluting NHS workers as ‘heroes’ and more demands for safe and adequate working conditions.

Many staff have recently shifted to online working, most of whom have been compelled to do so with little, or no training. These changes in our working conditions bring considerable H&S risks, for the most part, none of which will have been risk assessed (RA) by our employers. The Health and Safety Executive have issued updated RA guidance here.


  • Work stations, these are the most basic standards. Note that we, rather than the employer are tasked with ensuring that:
    • there is adequate space in the area we are working in to work safely (what does that mean?)
    • the space is well ventilated but at a comfortable temperature (we will bear the cost of additional heating)
    • our working area is free from tripping hazards (which requires space and equipment, e.g. cable ties, adequate and multiple sockets)
    • there is adequate lighting
    • electrical equipment is in a good condition (use occasional visual checks to confirm this) – who amongst us is trained to be able to evaluate the safety of the equipment we are using?
    • We know how to contact our manager in an emergency
    • We have regular online and/or telephone meetings scheduled with colleagues and managers to keep in touch and discuss any problems.

All well and good assuming that you can achieve all of the above. In most guidance there is little or no mention of disabled workers, many of whom will lose essential support workers as a result of both social distancing, self-isolation.  The government has acknowledged that

“… those that rely on the support provided by their carers are particularly at risk during this difficult period… there will be more need for care services, but sickness and the need to isolate is likely to reduce the number of dedicated social workers and care staff available to support those in need.”

This includes support workers who enable disabled staff to stay in work.

Trade unions should be demanding that IT and other support for home working, including

training needs, are met by the employer, and that financial costs are remunerated.  There are a raft of Equality issues around home working, that in the rush to shift to online teaching and other day-to-day tasks, have not been considered and/or addressed.  Warm words are spoken by employers about how to avoid social isolation, however, often, suggestions to ‘stay in touch ’are means through which to exercise surveillance over staff working at home.

The lack of risk assessments for online teaching and increased administrative work must be addressed.

We cannot ignore the disproportionate impact on casualised staff who are less likely to have access to IT equipment and support, let alone facilities to meet their contractual obligations.

Contractual issues

The aggressive position employers in HE and FE have already taken toward casualised staff began with the wholesale dismissal of staff at SOAS  and more recently Sussex, Newcastle and Bristol universities cannot go unchallenged. The implications for those discarded by their employers, as well as for staff who will be exploited with increased workloads to cover the work of the sacked will inevitably lead to increased physical and mental ill-health.

Trade unions should be demanding that employers provide or facilitate ‘water cooler’/ staff common room platforms through which staff can keep in contact and avoid isolation.

Trade unions should be demanding that all staff, including those on fractional contracts, are protected from working beyond their contracted hours. More than ever it is important that staff work to contract, in order to protect theirs and their family’s health and work life balance: we can and should do no more than what is achievable and sustainable.

There must also be recognition that some staff who are working at home will also be looking after children who are off school and studying at home, fulfilling caring responsibilities and in some cases shielding. In no instances should staff who cannot complete all of their work be subjected to absence or performance reviews.

Now was not the time to be extending goodwill without guarantees that this homeworking does not become the new way of working. Academic-Related and Professional Support staff who are now working from home will bear the brunt of the administrative work required to make the changes in teaching, assessment, timetabling, recruitment, registration etc.… Not an exhaustive list by any means. Many of these colleagues aren’t unionised, and those who are can be members of our sister unions. We should be working closely with UNISON, GMB, Unite and EIS to protect and defend and protect the interests of all post-16 Education workers.

There are contractual issues surrounding on-line delivery, which include: acknowledging and planning working time, for example in answering emails, preparation time for transferring materials to a suitable mode for on-line delivery, workload in maintaining and updating on-line materials.

Trade unions must also be vigilant in advising and supporting members who encounter copyright issues. This is very clear in terms of the post 92 national contract which distinguishes between notes made for the lecturer’s personal use and learning materials produced in the course of employment.

It is essential that we do not allow our homes to become solely a place of work. Easier said than done when so many staff working in post-16 Education do not have the luxury of dedicated working spaces and offices in the home. Many casualised staff live in multiple occupancy accommodation, and sometimes in ‘multiple locations’, which presents particular challenges in the context on restrictions on movement. Trade unions must be especially proactive in protecting their working conditions.

Pedagogic issues

Typically, whether in FE or HE we have a degree of influence over the content of our teaching and how it assessed.  With the wholesale move to online teaching institutions are setting up ‘Major Incident Groups’ predominantly the aim of continuing ‘businesses usual’. In many instances this groups comprise senior managers and administrators who are making decisions that negatively impact pedagogy. Changes in the way we teach, and the ways in which we assess cannot be made purely for reasons of expediency; the challenges we are facing must be met from the bottom up, by those doing the teaching and assessing, informed by pedagogical rather than technological approaches. Again many decisions being made are impacting on the amount of work we are being tasked to do.

We know that face-to-face teaching cannot shift online without significant redesigning of taught content, revising and reviewing information and resources about independent learning, and ensuring access to all of the technology that teachers and students will required. This is already resulted in an explosion of work and increase in workload for all of us. The Open University – with over 50  years’ experience of remote teaching – has issued new guidance for students, suggesting that much of the way which they do teaching and assessment has already  changed, and could be under constant review. A stark demonstration that face-to-face teaching assessment cannot simply be switched, at the click of virtual learning environment platform, online. Since its inception lecture capture has been vaunted as a means through which students access lecture recordings in order to clarify areas that they did not understand from the lecture. With little or no training, educators had been told that their primary function is to record their intellectual property, gift it to their employer, and at the same time, deal with the stressors related to achieving this.

The questions which will need answering and that we must be involved in decisions made include:

  • Curriculum areas where students need to spend time on work placement (e.g. health professions) or in labs (science and engineering) or workshops (arts and crafts, fashion, silversmithing etc)
  • Management of student expectations (e.g. time scale for response to emails)
  • How much formative feedback (and final feedback) to give on student assignments
  • Pastoral and academic support of students – how to maintain sense of academic community
  • On-line assessment and marking
  • Equality issues for students
  • Are there some employability skills which cannot be learned easily on-line?
  • Maintenance of the netiquette and professional behaviour between students and staff

We also need to consider the ways in which we are being called, in some cases summonsed to online meetings, which become de facto micromanagement and surveillance.

If, as chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries announced on 30 March, the crisis will continue for several months, and stated that it could be 6 more months before things our back to normal, we should be very concerned about what the new normal might look like.  Any discussions on work planning for the next academic year should not be based on the premise that all learning will be online.

How as union activists should we respond to these health and safety risks?  I propose a call to action:

  • Trade unions must organise collectively in the workplace around health issues using existing legal frameworks.
  • Employers must be compelled to undertake risk assessments.
  • Employers must be compelled to identify and remove hazards, in particular including unsafe working practices in the home.
  • Managements must agree to respect the obstacles to homeworking faced by staff due to their personal circumstances. We should adopt the EIS’s maxim, “What I can, when I can, if I can”.
  • We must insist that managements cease to issue blanket instructions to staff which take no account of the inequalities caused by homeworking, and we must demand that as part of Equality Impact Assessments measures are put in place to prevent staff suffering detriments, e.g. promotion, advancement or job security, as a result of any obstacles they face to working from home.
  • The recognised trade unions in post-16 Education must work together to protect the terms conditions and rights of their members.

In conclusion the role of UCU is vital in protecting both academic quality and standards, and its members working conditions and health and safety.

We need active union branches, meeting online until we can meet face to face again.

We need active union reps challenging overloading and pressures on staff to cope with rapid change without proper support.

Temporary homeworking must not be used by employers to drive a coach and horses through existing conditions, to isolate staff, or to leave staff to cope unsupported with the changes forced on the sector by the Coronavirus and requirements for social distancing or self-isolation.

If we organise effectively as a union in this context we can build stronger union organisation, which protects members at work, whether working at home in electronic cottages or back in the universities and colleges.

Above all, stay safe and stay well. If you experience symptoms or do succumb to this awful virus please seek medical advice from your own GP, 111 or the NHS website.

Education Support also offers mental health support and advice for education workers.

Marian Mayer
WMSC, DMSC, National Negotiator, Chair Southern Region, Co-chair Bournemouth University UCU

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