House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry into Freedom of Expression Online
a University College London
b University of Birmingham
c Northumbria University
A.1. We study the role of technology in supporting people’s ability to focus while working, and to recover from work during time off – as well as its role in blurring boundaries between work and non-work periods.
A.2. As part of the eWorkLife Remote Work project, between 20th April 2020 and 30th March 2021, we surveyed 484 individuals who started working from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We also conducted 25 follow-up interviews. This helped us to develop an in-depth understanding of how new remote workers use technology and how this affects the boundaries between their professional and personal lives, as well as their wellbeing.
A.3. We found that working from home, especially when combined with various lockdown restrictions, results in an increase in the use of technology outside of the normal contracted hours. While this allows people to work more flexibly, it also has the potential to erode the boundaries between work life and home life, leading to negative effects on people’s health and wellbeing and their ability to rest and enjoy time off from work. To protect UK workers from burnout, companies need to adopt digital etiquette policies that protect the work-life balance of their employees and make working remotely sustainable. Workers are unlikely to be successful in making these changes alone, without support from employers and policymakers. Therefore, we are responding to the Committee’s call for evidence and responding to the question ‘How can digital citizenship and etiquette be promoted among adults?’.
B. Executive summary
B.1. Working from home has made it harder for workers to separate their work and home lives, with many of them unable to disconnect from work communication.
B.2. Intrusion of work into the home environment has also had privacy implications for workers, resulting from digital communication.
B.3. Inability to have and enjoy time off can put workers’ health and productivity at risk.
B.4. Policymakers need to insist that employers actively encourage workers to disconnect during time off, and make this feasible for workers, for example by providing work computers and phones.
B.5. Companies also need to be instructed to develop internal privacy policies that aim to protect workers’ and their cohabitants’ privacy as people work from home.
C. How can digital citizenship and etiquette be promoted among adults?
C.1. Enabling digital boundaries between workers’ personal and professional lives.
Findings: The transition to working from home in the absence of a long-term remote work strategy made it hard for many people to set boundaries between their personal and professional lives. As a result, we found that workers felt tired, with several pointing to changes in sleep patterns, and observed an increase in sedentary behaviour. Common issues included:
People who have transitioned to working remotely need support from their employers in creating new habits that will allow them to separate their personal lives from work lives. Employers need to help workers protect time during which they can rest, to help them prevent exhaustion and burnout.
C.2. The impact of working from home on workers’ privacy and a need for an online etiquette around privacy issues.
Findings: We found that working from home has had an impact on many people’s ability to protect their privacy. Work intruded into personal lives and personal space in different ways. Multiple workers felt some level of discomfort about their colleagues’ ability to see into their living rooms. This could involve cohabitees, as one respondent brought to our attention a situation where work colleagues saw their spouse and children and commented on their presence. Other participants felt that they had lost the distinction between office as a workspace and home as a private space.
As remote or hybrid work continues, companies need to take the issues of privacy more seriously and create internal policies that reflect best practice.
This research was supported by a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/N027299/1). The brief was drafted by Anna Rudnicka, with oversight from Anna Cox, and input from Marta Cecchinato and David Cook. Formatting was based on advice provided by Audrey Tan, UCL Public Policy.