The shape of the workplace after the pandemic will be a major negotiating issue for trade unions. In these negotiations the issues of equality, workloads and surveillance will be important. The traditional trade union agenda around homeworking was to support the right of homeworking for those who wished to do so. While this agenda continues, there is now also a need to resist the imposition of homeworking on those who do not wish or cannot work at home. Trade unions must get these matters on the bargaining agenda, in order to resist employer imposition.
University and college staff, like many other groups of workers, have since March 2020, experienced massive changes in their working conditions and work experience. First there was a rapid shift to homeworking, which caused massive pressures of workload, then pressures to return to the workplace generating major concerns about health and safety. Many universities and colleges are now preparing for teaching and other activities to be based far more or wholly on workplace premises in future academic years.
There are, however, unknowns, such as whether there will be further variants and waves of the COVID-19 virus, which could lead to more lockdowns. The progress of mass vaccination in the UK may give confidence that further lockdowns will not be needed, but this is only the case if variants which are vaccine-resistant do not arise. The failure to vaccinate the whole world at a similar pace leaves real dangers of a resurgence of this pandemic. Moreover, until the environmental issues which lay the basis for future pandemics are tackled, we cannot be certain that lockdowns and travel restrictions will be things of the past.
The pandemic has highlighted sharply many social inequalities. These include:
- Internationally inequalities in access to medical care and vaccination;
- Inequalities in different countries in terms of welfare systems and income support;
- Jobs where homeworking is possible versus those where attendance at the workplace is essential;
- Variations in quality and space of housing which mean that for some homeworking has been comfortable, while for others it has been a very negative experience;
- Levels of job and income security, which mean some have survived the pandemic with more savings and disposable income, while others have suffered serious financial hardship;
- Race and class inequalities in the death rate from COVID-19, associated also with occupational and housing inequalities;
- Higher death rates from the pandemic among elderly and disabled people, especially those in care homes;
- The double load on many working women who have had to combine paid work with home-schooling of children;
- Inequalities in digital access, related to class, age and geographical factors, which mean some have suffered much greater isolation than others.
- Domestic violence and abuse within the privacy of the home;
- Unequal educational opportunities and support for children in the context of home-schooling;
- Inequalities in physical and mental health linked with many of the above inequalities.
Returning to the workplace
Some employers, e.g., Nationwide, are offering many of their staff a choice between homeworking or working on employer premises. The recent experiment with homeworking is likely in some sectors to produce a long-term shift in the balance of working patterns. Within the post-16 education sector there are a number of factors which will influence the outcome. On the one side, in support of both more homeworking and more distance learning will be the growth of companies specialising in education technology, the savings to employers from home working and the convenience that some students have experienced in being able to access learning remotely. On the other side there will be commercial pressures, particularly in terms of student accommodation and catering services, to get students, and hence staff, back on college and university premises, with a return to face-to-face teaching. Educational considerations should also, hopefully, feature in this debate. There are strong arguments in favour of face-to-face teaching, with learning technologies as a supplement, not a substitute. These arguments include the creation of academic communities, greater support for student learning and greater development of social skills, emotional intelligence and vocational learning.
Negotiations and choices about patterns of working
Some UCU members, for instance research scientists who need access to laboratories, can only carry out their work in the workplace. Similarly, some staff with student-facing duties may need to be present at the workplace. Others will have discovered that work can be performed remotely, even in jobs where in the past it may have been assumed this was not possible. So, we must recognise not all members will be in an equal position in terms of choice about where they work. In the past unions often negotiated over homeworking, with an agenda of securing a right to homeworking for those staff who wished to work at home. Now some of the union negotiating agenda must be around securing workstations and the right to work at the workplace, for those who fear they are being pressured into homeworking. Labour Research Department had produced a very useful guide on ‘Negotiating the new homeworking landscape’. One of the points it makes is that unions should, where they can, get these matters into a negotiating arena. Otherwise, employers will unilaterally impose new patterns of working.
We should recognise that there are both occupational role factors and personal preferences involved. Those heavily involved in face-to-face teaching may find they are back in college or university every day of the week. Others may have some discretion, as those in higher education have had in the past, as to whether they carry out tasks such as teaching preparation, marking, administration and research from home or on campus. Some members may thrive on solitary working; others will find working at home on their own challenging or unacceptable.
Equality between those working in the workplace and those working at home
UCU should ensure that all equality groups are consulted and that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, which can leave the needs of some groups unattended. For instance, some disabled people may find a shift to homeworking makes working life easier and allows them to stay in employment for longer, particularly if it removes obstacles associated with travel to and from work. For others the isolation of working at home may exacerbate mental health problems. Similarly in the case of working parents and those staff with caring responsibilities, some may find homeworking makes it easier to manage paid work and other commitments, while others may find a clear separation between home and workplace is more beneficial.
Casualised staff may benefit from remote working if it means they do not have to move home frequently on account of work, but there may be disadvantages in working at home if homeworkers have less access to networks and career development opportunities compared to those working on employer premises. Some of these aspects of occupational and professional cultures may not be formally recognised or acknowledged, but may be very real for newly appointed staff, who do not have the legacy of having previously worked with others in their workplace on a face-to-face basis. It is often in informal conversations in the workplace that new staff learn about aspects of work performance, what training and other development opportunities they can apply for and who is likely to support or block their career development. They can also learn from contact with union representatives about their employment rights and conditions of service. Sometimes this informal learning can make the difference between being able to stay in a job and falling foul of some regulations or difficult individuals, which ends up in the individual leaving the organisation.
Where some staff are working remotely and others are working on employer premises, unions need to consider issues of equity between the two groups. For instance, those working remotely may lose out in networking and career development opportunities. It may also be the case, however, that those working in the workplace have to pick up more issues and queries which disadvantage them compared to homeworkers in being able to plan their time effectively and achieve targets for research and other duties.
The complexity of these issues can only be addressed if there is regular and systematic consultation with staff about ways of working. There must be regular equality impact assessments of developments in working patterns.
One of the big workload issues concerning homeworking is when does the working day end. Prior to the pandemic it was already the case that many university and college staff worked unpaid overtime, in terms particularly of preparation and marking duties which could not be fitted into a standard working work. (By the way I am in favour of using the blunt phrase ‘unpaid overtime’ for discussing this problem.) In the workplace some work activities are halted, for instance a teaching session ends when another group of students are waiting to enter the room. The danger with transfer of many work activities to an online basis is that there are not the same natural end points and the worker can be accessible online at all hours of the day, unless there is a clear, enforced, institutional policy about fixed working hours.
Prospect, a trade union representing workers in professions such as engineering, science, management and the civil service, is campaigning for the right to disconnect. This includes the right not to be sent emails outside work hours and of course no expectation to send or reply to emails outside work hours. This is an important demand because it affirms that boundaries are good for mental health. The right to disconnect is a demand which may become increasingly popular with workers and can be enacted on a legislative basis.
Workload control, however, is not only a matter of the right to enforce working hours and to disconnect from work outside working hours. Workload control is better achieved if work is properly planned in the first place, so that workers have realistic time allowances for doing tasks. This involves an element of work study. UCU members in post-92 universities, where there is a national contract, are familiar with these processes of work planning. Work planning, if done properly, should give the lecturer sufficient time within a normal working week (around 35-37 hours) for teaching, related preparation, marking and administration, scholarship, research and general academic duties, plus some headroom or contingency time. Reader, please do not laugh! Often the reality experienced is that many jobs take longer than the time allowances and also that there is no contingency time in the workplan, so there is an assumption lecturers will just cope if other demands on their time crop up. We have to reject this view that university and college staff are sponges, who can just absorb more.
So, besides the right to disconnect and the enforcement of clear boundaries around personal time, time for research and scholarship, and holidays, university and college staff need jobs which have been designed to be achievable within a standard working week. Let me add that when we are talking about achievable in a standard working week this should not be based on assumptions that everything always goes well, that the worker is an experienced performer at every task they undertake, that the worker is never sick and that there are no IT breakdowns.
Finally for homeworkers, there is a workload issue of who does certain jobs which were performed by other staff groups in the workplace, but which are likely to be done by workers at home. This includes cleaning of workstations and office space and IT maintenance. In some cases. it may be appropriate to recognise that the homeworker will do this within their set working hours. In other cases, for instance IT maintenance, it may be appropriate for the employer to send staff to the employee’s home to provide these services. This issue needs to be included in the negotiation of homeworking arrangements, in order to avoid a default assumption that the homeworker will pick up these tasks in addition to their standard working week.
Many work organisations, such as colleges and universities, may have a proportion of staff working at home and a proportion working on employer premises. If liaison between the two groups involves additional work for staff this too needs to be counted and budgeted for within existing working hours. So workplans should be reviewed to take into account the changes in modes of working post COVID.
Surveillance and Autonomy
The starting point for any negotiations around this area should be that homeworkers should not be subject to forms of surveillance that do not apply in the workplace and that no workers should be subject to forms of surveillance which erode professional autonomy. Having some autonomy about when and where to do work (for instance research, teaching preparation and marking) and how to do it are aspects of working in universities and colleges which many staff value and which we should defend. This issue of autonomy in working arrangements can also be seen as linked to academic freedom and professional and pedagogic autonomy. They are all part of resisting micro-management and the marketisation of education.
If we think temporarily about the pandemic as a social experiment in different ways of working and living, what has happened in some cases is that some employers and managers have learned to trust workers to work responsibly at home without direct control. Of course, they are unlikely to admit this, but there will be employers and managers who were convinced homeworking would lead to unlimited skiving who have found this was far from the case.
In some cases, however, employers have sought to monitor homeworking in oppressive ways, using IT equipment to measure output and attendance. This should be opposed. Universities and colleges have existing procedure for dealing with disciplinary and capability matters and there is no good case for introducing further controls. Management education should focus on the development of high trust relationships and supportive management styles.
It is also important that students are not subject to inappropriate forms of surveillance.
As institutions plan working practices for the future, employers may be proposing a variety of working arrangements. Some will wish to embrace a norm in which all staff are on university or college premises for fixed working hours or a core number of hours per week. Others may be looking at models in which some staff work partly at home while others attend the workplace full-time. Terms are being used like ‘the physical campus’ and ‘the virtual campus’ and ‘hybrid workers’ and ‘campus workers’. In the case of ‘hybrid workers’ in one university at least there has been the proposed that the worker is obliged to agree the pattern of attendance with their line manager. This is very different from the freedom to work at home or in the workplace, while being reasonably contactable in emergencies. Such proposals do not give staff flexibility but rather subject them to greater control and attendance monitoring. We should also be mindful of the danger that staff working in the ‘virtual campus’ or as ‘hybrid workers’ lose access to office space and workstations in the workplace. Proposals to redesign campuses so that the number of workstations is reduced should be resisted. This can take away the right to work on campus for those who do not wish to work at home.
This paper has argued that there is a substantial trade union negotiating agenda around the post COVID workplace. It has discussed this in regard to three areas: equality, workloads and surveillance. There are also matters to bring within negotiation regarding copyright and regarding environmental impact of variations in ways of working. We should also ask whether trade unions can achieve something positive in terms of improvements in the quality of working life. This may seem over-optimistic at a time when unions are fighting major defensive battles over jobs, resisting ‘fire and rehire’ and casualisation. These battles need to be fought and won. Nonetheless in the early days of the pandemic people were thinking and talking about how to live and work differently in a way which was more sociable, more sustainable in terms of the economy and the environment and better for mental and physical health. We should not lose sight of this agenda.
If unions are to negotiate for improvements in the quality of working life, this means finding ways of maximising membership involvement in debate about what union members want the post COVID workplace to look like. Union organising around this will involve both formulation of demands for collective bargaining and also building the solidarity of unionised workgroups to protect against over-loading and to develop new ways of working at the grassroots of organisations.