Coronavirus and homeworking: challenging scenarios

Coronavirus and homeworking: challenging scenarios
2020-03-25

As someone who has written about home working for many years, and who has practiced flexible, part time home working for over 20 years, the current need to home-work due to the coronavirus situation should come naturally. This blog is not intended as a ‘how to’ manual, but it will contain some suggestions in that regard. It is more intended as a reflection on events various emergent issues, and some anticipation of the likely challenges ahead.

Like many, I am still coming to terms with what has happened over the last few weeks and months, as events have unfolded. The implications of the coronavirus pandemic for me and the university have only really started to fully emerge in the last few weeks. Since then the pace, and scale of change has been bewildering for us all. Even two weeks ago, at the start of March 2020, if someone had suggested to me that we would, or could switch from providing face-to-face campus-based classes, to online only classes, and at the same time, close buildings, and have all its staff working remotely, I would have laughed. But this is exactly what has happened not only for us but nearly every organisation in the UK and beyond.

While I, and others face the challenges of working from home full time, with all our colleagues also remote, it is worth remembering that in some ways, we are fortunate. Working from home provides us with the opportunity to social distance effectively, and carefully manage how we socially interact with others. However, for many, work has simply stopped, creating enormous worries about financial security. For others, due to the nature of their work, home-working is not possible. This is the case for a wide range of key workers, from those who work in care homes, in community care, hospital staff, supermarket staff, and other front-line workers. For such people, the ability to social distance is compromised by the fundamental character of their work. While precautions can be taken by such people to minimise risks of infection, such risks can only be reduced, not eliminated

Having said the above, the homeworking circumstance myself and others find ourselves in are far from what the home/telework literature would suggest. One significant factor shaping the challenges home-workers face is their domestic circumstances, such as whether they live alone, or whether they have school/nursery age children.

One of the potential benefits of home/teleworking is that it can help with work-life balance, by allowing people to eliminate travel to work, and better juggle the demands of work and childcare. However, this is based on the (implicit) assumption that during much of the work-day, children will be in childcare or at school, allowing the homeworker to focus on work. In the current circumstances, with schools and nurseries closed, this is not the case. Therefore homeworkers in such situations will face the challenge of working from home where there are (possibly multiple) children at home, some of whom will require caring for. In such circumstances, the demands of work and care are likely to create conflict, especially if the homeworkers does not have a dedicated workspace, and requires to work from a shared room, such as a dining room, or kitchen. Dealing with this challenge is not impossible, but will require negotiation with both children, and work colleagues, and will mean that some work time, is almost inevitably compromised due to unavoidable caring responsibilities.

For those living alone, the opposite challenge may exist, with individuals potentially becoming quite socially isolated. The home/teleworking research identifies isolation as a potential risk of homeworking. The typical advice for minimising this is to home-work part time, such as 2 day per week, and spend some work time in shared office space. Again, current circumstances make this impossible, with those living alone having to home-work full time. To deal with this, and reduce the risk of isolation, there are a couple of strategies that can be adopted.

Firstly, the pleasures of the outdoors, can be enjoyed, by walking/running etc (while social distancing, and only if not displaying virus symptoms). Secondly, social interaction, as long as its remote, and technologically mediated, can be enjoyed. Anyone living alone, and required to home work full time should take advantage of the vast and diverse communication technologies that exist such as Skype or Zoom to stay in touch with family and friends, and maybe even revive friendships which have suffered due to lack of interaction.

Professor Donald Hislop is a Professor in the Sociology of Work and Technology in the Management Studies Discipline Group. Prior to joining the University of Aberdeen Business School, he worked in the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University (2007-2018). His research interests focus on the relationship between technology and work and how worker's use of new technologies shapes the character of their work. His current primary interest is in how artificial intelligence and robots are shaping managerial, professional and service work. He also have an ongoing interest in the work-related use of mobile communication technologies, particularly with respect to business travel. His second area of research interest is into the social-cultural aspects of knowledge management, being concerned with the factors shaping worker's willingness to engage in knowledge management activities.

Published by Business School, University of Aberdeen

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