By Oliver Gibson –
The various lockdown restrictions of the last year changed much about the way we conduct our social and professional lives.
An estimated 46.6% of people in Britain did at least part of their work online last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working from home was generally perceived to be a solution to a specific question – ‘how could office workspaces keep running during a global pandemic?’
However, these days, while many people wish to continue working from home for various reasons, some employers seem to be getting ideas on how to line their pockets while slashing their contributions to the social fabric of the country.
The initial transition to remote work
Many will remember the defining address given by Boris Johnson on the 23rd of March 2020, in which he outlined the drastic changes that were to be brought about in the first lockdown.
While some employers had allowed their employees to begin working from home before the first lockdown was announced, for many this speech marked an end to the normal structure of their working lives, at least for a time. Essential workers, of course, had to continue their work in person throughout the stages of the pandemic.
Still, remote workers became a historically large section of the workforce overnight. As stated previously, 46.6% of workers performed at least some of their work from home at some point last year. Remote working as a trend was seen more heavily in cities than in the rest of the country. This was most likely due to office work being more common in cities than in the greenbelt. In London, for example, 57.2% of people did some of their work at home, according to official Government statistics.
There were some differences in the rates of distance-work between men and women and between different social classes.
An ONS report stated that women were slightly more likely to have worked from home last year, with 47.5% of women and 45.7% of men conducting such work. Jobs requiring higher qualifications were also more likely to be allowed by employers to be conducted at home, showing a class aspect to the nature of remote work.
Effect on employment rates
According to the Independent, a ‘new, work-oriented global community’ emerged during the pandemic. Members of this community worked ‘two or more full-time jobs’ in order to increase their salaries by considerable amounts, with some making ‘as much as $600,000 (£440,000)’ from that work.
While it will of course have been beneficial for the members of that ‘community’ to have worked two or more jobs as they did online, it does raise questions about the effect it would have not only on their overall health, but the effect on others looking for work. If high-earning, experienced workers were able to hoard jobs and roles, it logically follows that younger, less experienced workers would suffer as a result. And of course, workplace productivity would most likely decrease if some employees were to privately juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time.
This trend seems to have only been practised by a select few, with only ‘2,784’ people being members of the ‘overemployed’ community (they even have a website). Still, it shows what is possible through remote work – and if reports that 23% of workers wish to remain at home after the pandemic are true, then there is a possibility that this community could grow.
The scope for businesses to increase their profits through remote work
The dangers of remote work do not all arise from employees, however. Some employers are now seeking workers from countries with lower average wages than the UK.
Robert Walters Group, a recruitment firm worth £500 million, has been on a ‘hiring spree’ in the Baltic States according to Toby Fowlston, its CEO.
Fowlston told The Mail on Sunday that employers are aware of the ‘wage inflation’ in the UK and that ‘fully remote’ British workspaces are now able to ditch their British employees and offices and seek workers from overseas, who will be paid less than their predecessors.
If employees do not return to work, or are denied the opportunity to, there is the potential for more affluent businesses to be able to lay off their British workforces at the stroke of a pen, or perhaps the push of a key, in order to reduce their costs.
Those businesses then have the opportunity to extract money from British consumers while offering little in return. Executives and shareholders may then pay less money in tax, rent and wages, decreasing the money available to be spent on key services such as the NHS and our schools.
What can be done?
The Tony Blair Institute warned recently that the pandemic has left nearly six million jobs at risk of being moved overseas. This risk may also grow in time as internet coverage improves in developing countries.
The only foreseeable legislative remedy to this problem would be a Government mandate for companies operating online workspaces to source a considerable percentage of their workers from the UK.
Alternative remedies could be found in boycotts of companies that commit themselves to the practice. However, this could only be a short-term solution to a larger problem and would not guarantee the rights of British workers for good.
It is clear that a decision must be taken from above if big businesses decide to go down this route. While the situation is still developing, employees should take note and do everything in their power to defend their position – and one way to do this is to get offices up and running again.