As the COVID-19 crisis rages on, individuals around the world are now thrown into a work-from-home, digitally-enabled “new normal” of the workplace. For most white-collar workers, homes have become offices, and boundaries between work and domestic life are being reshuffled.
This shift, however, is just an acceleration of prior developments well under way since the beginning of this new millennium. Before the pandemic, workers with some higher education more were already more likely to work from home. In part this shift resulted from demands for better “work-life balance” prompting employers to accommodate workers with caring responsibilities by introducing remote work and flexibility. More importantly, though, digital technology makes it easier for firms to outsource costs and flexibility onto workers, accelerating the rise of the gig-economy globally. Platforms like Upwork, firms can be assembled with labor from around the world, further privatizing and extending the traditional notion of the workplace.
For many, the current situation has made evident the conflicts between work and family responsibilities, something that feminist scholars have repeatedly put forward.
Feminists have long argued that these conflicts originate in the supposed distinction between the “private” space of the home, which is considered to be “women’s domain,” and the “public” realm of the market, which is “men’s domain.” It follows, feminists have argued, that activities predominantly performed by women at home, such as childcare, are perceived as having no economic value, while the workplace is designed around the “ideal unencumbered male worker” without any caring responsibilities. This division between work and home ends up hurting women, who are often unable to meet these ideal standards because of their family responsibilities and face discrimination in the workplace as a result. This division also hurts men. Those who resist firm’s expectations often manage to pass as ‘ideal workers,’ but those who ask for accommodations typically offered to women are marginalized and penalized in similar ways as women.
Although this distinction between the home and the market is an influential legal and political principle, its descriptive and ideological limits were very well-known before the pandemic. Historians have shown that before the Industrial Revolution, when work shifted to the factory, the primary space of production was the household. In today’s world, feminist scholars have documented how, for domestic workers, their employer’s home is where their often invisible, precarious and informal work takes place. Many of these workers are losing their jobs due to the pandemic and are left without any protection. For others the crisis has been synonymous with more exploitation. Finally, within the narrowly defined nuclear families, feminist scholars have argued that domestic work and childrearing, which is still primarily done by women, is actually unpaid labour that has economic value, an argument that is adopted today by some international economic organizations.
It is not too hard to imagine a world in which the technological changes that have made remote work possible and the social changes that have made it the “new normal” lead to the sort of deep reconsideration of the meaning and value of different types of labor that feminists have long been calling for. One could imagine a post-pandemic world in which creating a flexible schedule to accommodate childcare needs becomes less stigmatized and firms begin to organize work so as to effectively accommodate family and private life.
But the changes we are seeing today seem more likely to reinforce inequalities, becoming another instance of how neoliberalism keeps reconfiguring our lives. Remote work has further eroded the weak labor protections at the heart of the industrial economy. More importantly, it risks intensifying the “economization” of our lives, by crowding out any non-work related activities and increasing the rat-race in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
More data will be needed to understand the changes that are taking place today and their long-term effects, but what evidence there is suggests that workers are on the losing end. In 2017, a comparative study done by the International Labor Organization and Eurofund (EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) showed that overall remote work tends to have detrimental effects on workers. Instead of being protective of “work-life balance,” remote work is eroding it. This result was found in both countries with traditions of strong welfare states (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden) and in countries with weak social protections (e.g. the U.S.)
One problem seems to be that remote work blurs the lines between “work” and “private life.” Workers have reported that because of the lack of clear boundaries, the working day is spread out over longer periods of time, squeezing out “free time.” Moreover, this de facto overtime is rarely remunerated as such. Remote work also intensifies the pace of work, and therefore is associated with more employee stress and burnout (see also the recent Eurofund report from January 2020).
If remote work becomes the “new normal” in many firms as a result of the current crisis, and it likely will, workers might have a hard time resisting these changes. Their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers is likely to be seriously weakened by the economic recession and the lack of options in a tightening job market.
The report suggests that some of these negative effects could be limited by ensuring that overtime is compensated and informal remote work is restricted. At the international level, the EU offers policy ideas for addressing some of these new forms of vulnerabilities. The European Pillar of Social Rights for instance protects the right to “work-life balance,” and healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection. More importantly, the European Framework Agreement on Telework agreed upon in 2002 between social partners reinforces the rights of teleworkers. It stresses data and privacy protection, the employer’s responsibility for protecting employees’ health and safety and the protection of workers’ right to organize.
Whether or not regulations on remote work are more protective for workers will ultimately depend on the power of organized labour in different countries. If we look at how this is playing out in France, a country with a strong welfare state and protective regulatory framework for workers, we begin to see how employers seem to already be gaining the upper hand in this struggle. With major layoffs looming in the private sector, a conflict is brewing between workers’ unions and business associations. Unions demand a new nation-wide regulation on remote work which would amend the current law, making sure that employers pay for costs associated with remote work, protecting work-life balance and reinforcing the right to be disconnected (le droit à la déconnexion). Employers have so far effectively resisted it, blocking all new regulation on remote work.
For many workers, paid work is currently happening at home, in the context of a decade-long technological revolution, and of a progressive erosion of labor protections, and states’ weakened ability to protect workers. This crisis might be an opportunity to seriously rethink the meaning and the organization of work, and for addressing the precarity workers face or it might also turn into a reinforcement of the extension of the market logic in our lives, and the further commodification of workers.