Professor Wendy Moncur & Dr Emma Nicol – Written Evidence (LOL0061)

Working from home & the increasing use of digital technology

Video-conferencing

The increased use of video-conferencing and normalisation of remote event attendance during Lockdown created opportunities to improve economic wellbeing for those living and working in rural areas (rural workers).

Rural workers often incur high financial and time costs for attending centralised work-related events such as meetings, conferences, continual professional development activities and training programmes. Government and the larger public sector and third sector organisations tend to be based in cities and large towns - where they also meet and hold events. For example, attendance at a training event in Edinburgh for a charity worker from north-east Scotland would previously have involved a journey by car and train lasting around 5 hours, plus at least one overnight stay and two out of the office. This meant that attendance at centralised events was limited. With the normalisation of remote event attendance,  the financial and time burden on attendance has been removed. There are greater opportunities for her to represent her organisation at central events,  increase visibility and skills, exchange knowledge and influence policy in her sector, without adversely impacting the budget of her small charity.

 

Video-conferencing can be invasive when people work from home.

Many people do not have a dedicated home office, and may be working from their bedroom, or a shared space in the home. Privacy is a luxury. Interviewees could find it uncomfortable to be on a video call where they were able to see into colleagues’ homes. Some were also concerned about personal aspects of non-work life being revealed during work calls due to the presence of personal objects in the background. For example, despite her positive experience of video-conferencing, the north-east charity worker did find it intrusive and embarrassing. She had nowhere to work except her bedroom - a very private space to be visible to professional contacts.

 

Proscriptive tool use created barriers to effective communication in the workplace.

Whilst video-conferencing could be enabling, insistence on the use of a specific platform by employers could create barriers to communication. For example, a local government officer and a Third Sector youth worker reported on their employers’ (two local authorities) insistence on using Microsoft Teams for all remote communications. This worked well for internal communications between staff. However, it did not work well in their interactions with client groups - such as children in care settings and vulnerable adults - who had very different communication needs and preferences.

 

Resources

Working from home’ covers a lot of places

Prior to Lockdown, ‘working from home’ was a blanket term used to cover working in places other than the official workplace. It included working  from cafes and libraries, indeed anywhere that interviewees found conducive to working effectively. When these locations were closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the decreased flexibility made home-working a less productive and satisfying experience for those who had previously valued their time away from the interruptions of the office to work on focused activities.

 

Working from home sometimes afforded greater privacy.

In a few instances, working from home had a net positive impact on the information privacy that employees were able to offer their clients. For example, those working in Human Resources reported that the move from an open plan office setting to working at home meant that their screens - displaying the personal information of colleagues - were no longer overlooked. In another instance, a charity telephone support line worker reported increased privacy for clients when their work was conducted at home, compared to pre-Lockdown, when they shared a workspace with other organisations. However, this privacy was predicated on having a dedicated space to work in at home, or by living alone. Those required to carry out confidential work were at risk of breaching confidentiality through lack of space - for example, a trainee lawyer working on confidential evidence at the kitchen table in a shared flat.

 

‘Digital resources may be shared with other members of the household.

Some of our interviewees were doing their best to work from home using digital resources such as laptops, mobile phones and WiFi that were shared with other members of the household. They also shared these resources to support personal / social interactions and activities. Use of shared resources presents security risks to employers. It can also be stressful to those sharing the resources, as use needs to be negotiated in the context of the day-to-day running of the home, and diverse needs - such as a couple both working full-time and children studying for school or university. Sharing resources in the home also impacts on privacy and autonomy. One woman who shared her laptop noted that she could not perform online activities such as information searches without these also being visible to her partner.

 

 

Working at home may expose victims of intimate partner violence to further disadvantage.

Whilst none of our interviewees had personally experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) or coercive control, our previous work[1] has shown that abusive partners restrict access to digital devices, mediated communications and Internet services as part of a pattern of control. This impacts on IPV victims’ access to social and practical support plus informational resources, and financial autonomy. In the context of home working, the abuser’s control may significantly impact their ability to do their job, and make them even more vulnerable to abuse if their economic independence is at risk. A further disadvantage of home-working for those experiencing IPV lies in not being able to get out of the home to go to work  - increasing risks of isolation and reducing access to support.

 

Employees lack training on secure, safe digital home-working.

Few interviewees received training to support their use of digital technologies in the transition to home working. Across private, public and third sectors, there was a lack of provision of training, information and direction regarding data management, storage, sharing, security and privacy by employers. This presented cybersecurity risks to the individual and their employer, especially where devices were shared with other household members. It also presented risks to employment. For example, a teacher described their safeguarding concerns when working from home, interacting with children in their own homes via videoconferencing. She was concerned about the increased risk of suddenly being alone with a child, with no adult present on the call. Safeguarding could be compromised (or perceived to be compromised) inadvertently  - e.g. due to what might be on view in her home when she was teaching children - with potentially devastating consequences for her career.

 

Relationships

Digital interactions and home-working impacted on some household relationships.

As the home served a dual purpose as a workplace, it could be difficult for people to take a real break from workplace demands, placing strains on household relationships. Equally, household demands such as caring responsibilities and interruptions from household members could intrude upon normal working hours, making agile working practices welcome.

 

The increasing use of digital technologies supported some interpersonal relationships and local economies.

Remote working has enabled skilled people to choose locations that suit their personal situation best, rather than moving to where the work is. For example, an engineer and his PhD student wife had been living apart due to work. The engineer’s company was based in an affluent part of the south of England, his wife was studying for a PhD in Scotland. Increased opportunities for home working mean that he is now able to live with his wife in a poorer area of Scotland, and to contribute to the economy there, whilst still working for the same employer.

 

Increased reliance on digital technology, combined with low digital literacy, made boundaries between work and play more porous.

Porous boundaries may be a positive in improving work relationships, but also present risks to professional identity and reputation, and to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Interviewees reported unintended ‘leakage’ of information between different aspects of their lives (e.g. work, family, social) as they worked from home and used the same devices to communicate across these aspects. With Internet Service Providers (ISPs) routinely pushing users to link to others across multiple platforms, some interviewees were confused over who they were sharing information with across professional and social online accounts. For example, one interviewee inadvertently added all of his Facebook friends as LinkedIn contacts. He was bewildered and annoyed: offline, his boundary between work colleagues and personal friends was robust, and he saw no relevance of linking in to friends professionally. Two workers in under-resourced Third Sector organisations used their private Facebook accounts to network amongst professional contacts, despite being uncomfortable about mixing work and social life, as they did not know how to create separate, work-based accounts, or to limit what professional contacts could see on their personal accounts.

 

Digital interactions and home-working impacted positively on personal innovation and creativity.

The turn to home-working during Lockdown freed up time that would otherwise have been spent on commuting. Further, entertainment available outside of the home was limited, as cinemas, restaurants, gyms etc were subject to closure. Interviewees of all ages and genders had more time to seek entertainment at home, and engaged in creative and economically innovative activities. Occasional hobbies such as painting, photography and share dealing evolved with the aid of digital presences (e.g.) through blogs, instagram feeds, development of online share portfolios, and, in a few cases, online shops.

 

People extended and diversified their use of existing digital tools and services to support their communication and wellbeing.

Interviewees told us that they had diversified in their use of digital tools and services during Lockdown. They use digital tools and services more intensively for work. They also repurposed tools and services that they had access to, but had previously used in limited ways or for very specific tasks. For example, an interviewee who was an online gamer had previously used Discord - a popular group-chatting app - as a place to communicate with other online gamers. They extended their use of Discord during Lockdown, by seeking mental health support from peers via an additional Discord channel.

Summary

Our contribution to this inquiry is to give insights into people’s lived experiences of  working at home and using digital technologies during Lockdown, and their associated wellbeing.

Before Lockdown, ‘working from home’ covered a lot of places, although it was consistently supported through digital technologies. During Lockdown, it shrank to the home itself, where resources (space, WiFi, computers) were sometimes luxuries that had to be shared, and lack of appropriate training could adversely impact individuals’ privacy and the security of their digital working practices.

Here we summarise the pros and cons that we uncovered:

Pros:

  1. The increased use of video-conferencing and normalisation of remote event attendance during Lockdown created opportunities to improve economic wellbeing for those living and working in rural areas (rural workers).
  2. The increasing use of digital technologies supported local economies and some interpersonal relationships.
  3. Working from home afforded greater privacy for some people when doing their jobs.
  4. Digital interactions and home-working impacted positively on personal innovation and creativity, as people had time on their hands.
  5. People extended and diversified their use of existing digital tools and services to support their communication and wellbeing.

Cons:

  1. Proscriptive tool use created barriers to effective communication in some workplaces.
  2. Video-conferencing could be invasive when people worked from home.
  3. Working at home may expose victims of intimate partner violence to further disadvantage.
  4. Employees lacked training on secure, safe digital home-working.
  5. Increased reliance on digital technology, combined with low digital literacy, made boundaries between work and play more porous.

 

Lockdown has hastened the advent of opportunities to work at home, and the adoption of digital technologies. However, flexibility is needed by employers, to ensure that staff have the right resources in order to do their jobs. That means access to the right training and digital resources,  and a real option to work in the workplace rather than at home if their personal circumstances make this a better choice.

10 December 2020


[1] Grimani A, Gavine A, Moncur W. An Evidence Synthesis of Covert Online Strategies Regarding Intimate Partner Violence. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. September 2020. doi:10.1177/1524838020957985