The pandemic made us all familiar with ‘social distancing’. Employers are starting to glimpse a future where ‘contractual distancing’ is progressively normalised.
For all the suffering it wrought and the challenges it has brought to everyday life, the onset of the pandemic had one positive effect for a significant number of workers: working from home became a reality for millions of employees, in Europe and beyond—relieving them from the daily grind of long commutes, the toxicity of certain office environments and some of the drudgery of the nine-to-five routine. It offered at least the prospect of a better work-life balance, of greater flexibility, and an unprecedented degree of autonomy.
Unsurprisingly, in spite of a long winter of seemingly endless Zoom meetings, blistering ‘home schooling’ sessions and worrying levels of social isolation, early surveys suggest many are unwilling to contemplate a full return to the office in the post-pandemic world. Employers are also increasingly ambivalent: some see home working as ‘an aberration‘ to be rectified as soon as possible but others are tempted by the cost-saving associated with reduction of office space.
Recent studies have focused on largely unforeseen, but clearly emerging, risks associated with remote working—teleworking in particular. Rising gender inequalities and growing psychosocial risks are increasingly documented as among the associated hazards.
What is attracting less attention is the potential impact of remote work, as the ‘new normal’, on employment relations, specifically the likely emergence of new forms of ‘contractual distancing’ between the firm and its ‘remote’ workforce. A recent study by the consultancy firm McKinsey should alert us to this danger.
Businesses, McKinsey reports, have been ‘rewiring their organizational policies … to better leverage a flexible workforce and use independent workers’ skills to help adapt to a post-pandemic world’. Of 800 executives it surveyed, ‘70 percent report an intent to hire more on-site independent workers and freelancers after Covid-19’.
Not all businesses will rush to reclassify their workers as self-employed contractors working remotely. A first group of workers, whose size would vary by business and sector, will likely be able to enjoy the benefits of remote working—perhaps even from the safety of ‘employer-sponsored home offices’—while retaining contractual security and labour rights. These would probably be the employees with highly-desirable, hard-to-find, firm-specific, ‘core’ skills.
Their employers will want to keep them close to their chest in terms of contractual arrangements, granting them a modicum of trust, autonomy and freedom in the manner and location from which their work is performed—albeit in exchange for greater intrusion on the content and output of their work (including through digital surveillance and monitoring) and some expectations of exclusivity in terms of their services. Think of the university professor, top lawyer or leading software developer.
But a second group of workers, perceived as less highly-skilled (though not necessarily unskilled or peripheral) and more readily available in the labour ‘market’, could quickly be on the receiving end of restructuring and contractual variations which could see them working remotely, on a more or less regular basis, as freelancers or independent contractors. Think of the lecturer (seasonal or otherwise) teaching on the new online course convened by the senior professor mentioned above, the junior associate assisting that top lawyer and the army of information-technology experts sustaining the growth in teleworking.
There is a third group whose labour risks being restructured as needed on to an intermittent or on-demand basis and could readily be shifted to platform intermediation, including via offshoring. Algorithmic management has abundantly proved its capabilities vis-à-vis ‘chopping up a multipart work into its smallest components and submitting each of them to always available and geographically dispersed “legions” of workers’.
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There could be a blurring between this and the previous group, whose members could also be pushed into performing ‘gigs’. These groups will arguably suffer the harshest of trade-offs between the advantages of physical distancing and the disadvantages of contractual distancing and precarisation.
Finally, as predicted by Joseph Stiglitz in the early days of the pandemic and confirmed by McKinsey, some workers who perform low-skill and repetitive tasks are likely to be increasingly substituted with bots and artificial intelligence. Human labour may still remain a feature, but a hidden one, of these processes of ‘heteromation’.
Decent remote work
The world of work has a long and proud tradition of defying the prophets of doom predicting its final demise. This could, and should, be one of those instances. As recently noted by the International Labour Organization, there is nothing novel about ‘home working’.
Yet this form of work has not historically been associated with decent or secure employment conditions. The ‘home’ connotes ‘private space’ which does not lend itself to regulatory action by the state, trade-union activity or administrative inspection.
A societal shift in favour of remote and home working could nevertheless prove a historic opportunity for the labour movement, liberating millions of workers—at least those fortunate enough to be able to perform their work remotely—from the excesses of managerialism. It could give a new impetus to the much needed human-centred agenda for the future of work.
This liberation is however not what most remote workers have experienced during the pandemic. Early evidence suggests many have suffered from a growing expectation to be available online on a near-constant basis—leading to longer hours, shorter breaks and burnout. This has often been coupled with remote surveillance and, especially for women, the shouldering of household and caring roles previously performed by others during working hours.
To have a truly liberating effect, future remote-work schemes must swiftly depart from these ‘lockdown work’ paradigms. And workers, unions and regulators will need to be aware of the pitfalls of contractual distancing.
Nicola Countouris is director of research at the European Trade Union Institute, professor of European and labour law at University College London and co-author with Valerio De Stefano of New Trade Union Strategies for New Forms of Employment (ETUC, 2019). De Stefano is the BOFZAP professor of labour law at KU Leuven.