Right to work from home law would be a win-win for all

Olivia Miller

The Telegraph reported on Monday 11 May 2020 that a source in the UK government is considering enshrining a right to work from home in law as part of a suite of options to ease the lockdown.

Dr Heejung Chung, an expert on flexible working and social policy at Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, has commented on the stigma of flexibility and how this law could be a ‘win-win’ for all. She said:

‘The right to flexible working, a law introduced in 2003 already includes the right to request to work from home for care purposes. The law originally only given to parents and carers of family members, was expanded to include all workers as of 2014. There has been an expansion of flexible working – such as part-time working, especially among mothers over the years, but there has not been an equal expansion of other types of flexible working such as working from home despite such expansion in the law.

‘For example, in the most recent survey of workers across Europe (the European Working Conditions Survey), less than 1 out of 5 workers worked from home on a regular basis, and this number is even lower for women at around 15% of dependent employed women. However, as recent reports have shown there is a huge demand for flexible working. Why then, has there been a stall in the take up of such arrangement? One key reason is that the right to request is just that. Right to request, not a right to gain access. Employers regularly note that the work cannot be done at home or that it will be detrimental to the company as key reasons why they do not let workers work from home. However, another key reason is the flexibility stigma, the idea that those working flexibly – e.g. working from home, are somehow less motivated, less productive than workers who work in the office. For workers this results in the fear that you will ultimately suffer from negative career outcomes when you are able to work flexibly. As my research has shown, more than 1/3 of workers in the UK hold stigmatised views of workers working flexibly.

‘This stigma, however, can be reduced if there are more people working flexibly – because you cannot single out those who work from home if everyone does it and it’s normalised. What is more, during this COVID-19 lockdown, more employers are experiencing possibly for the first time that much of the work that they feared could not be done at home, can very well be done at home and actually result in good productive outcomes. However, if the UK Government can provide a more solid legal basis in which workers can safely request to work from home without the fear of negative career outcomes, this can be a huge move to help change the organisational culture to ensure that flexible working can support workers in these extraordinary times. This would be especially the case for mothers (and others with similar care responsibilities), whose work capacity will significantly increase when given the opportunity to work from home.

‘What is more, by allowing workers to work from home will enable workers to move away from large cities (with extortionate rent) into rural areas which can help reduce the geographical inequality that currently exists. Similarly, employers will be able to better draw from a larger pool of talent from across the UK, and across genders if such provision is made. This is a win-win for all, and the Government’s move to enhance this right to work flexibly may provide the nudge needed to move us all in the right direction.’

Dr Chung’s current research is focused on how working time flexibility impacts an individual’s work-life balance, and the role of contexts in moderating that influence and how welfare state institutions and socio-economic factors shape individual’s perceived employment insecurity.

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