As digital technology has opened up opportunities for more people to work from home, in this blog I ask the question: Who “feels at home” at work, and why?
I reflect on how workers from different groups may be exposed to different levels of work-home boundary respect and encroachment, when engaged in digital communications and remote work. Further, I highlight the need for employers to respond flexibly to employees’ different, and changing, life circumstances when working from home. These reflections stem from my work on consumer cultures in times of crisis, capitalism and Covid-19, and a recent presentation to NHS workforce leaders at agiLab. They are also shaped by some of my own experiences of working at home as someone with ADHD and Long Covid – conditions which affect my life in ways that are not always “visible” to others.
In particular I note that “feeling at home” at work is impacted by intersecting inequalities such as racism, sexism, classism, and ableism, and shaped by workplace cultures and norms.
Why do work-home boundaries matter?
Boundaries between home and work are often porous and precarious. Such boundaries were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, which resulted in nearly half of all UK workers (49%) working from home during the first “lockdown”. Consequential challenges include addressing employers’ uninformed assumptions about “at home” work environments and improving the reality of working from home.
Due to distinct differences between people’s access to resources, not all who work from home do so from an office or private room. This means that not everyone can close the door at the end of their working day at home, and then enter a space that is different to their work environment. Additionally, even those who can do this may have to manage caring responsibilities, alongside other forms of work – paid and/or unpaid – from home. Employers seeking to support employees working from home must be attuned to variations between their home environments, caring commitments, and overall capacity.
Yet, many employers fail to effectively account for the health and wellbeing of their employees – from punitive responses to employees’ reluctance to use webcams during meetings, to exploitative expectations of their productivity.
Online optics and assumptions about “wellness”
A particular concern is that the “hidden” challenges involved in new work practices, such as digital forms of working from home, are unappreciated by employers. My work has foregrounded the concerns of individuals from marginalised groups who are impacted by intersecting inequalities, including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, and ableism faced by Black and Asian people who are chronically ill and/or disabled.
For example, online work meetings often begin with well-meaning statements and questions that are uttered in response to visuals of colleagues working from home. “I see that…”, “Where are you?”, and “Is that a…?”, are often used in ice-breaking ‘small talk’ about the background of where others are joining the call from, or how they appear to “be doing”. Whilst such comments reflect the human impulse to make and maintain connections with others, for some groups these comments are intrusive or imply judgement. Assumptions about the perceived wellness and whereabouts of employees based on online optics and their (in)visibility, can, at times, be oppressive and insensitive to difficult domestic settings.
Also, as I have previously reflected on, during the COVID-19 pandemic, “while some people have flippantly referred to the ‘pivot to online’ strategies of institutions (e.g. healthcare, education, political, employers) and participated in such efforts in relatively unscathed ways, others have suddenly been expected to make themselves very visible online, without any indication of how institutions will support them if they encounter online abuse and harms”. Employers have a duty to consider and address how forms of online visibility affect employees in different ways. This includes addressing how the fatiguing nature of online visibility can exacerbate health conditions and/or expose employees to online harassment.
Agile working, ableism, and employers’ attitudes
“Agile working” is a term that is associated with myriad traits such as the ability to work and move quickly. To some people, “agile working” means a sense of flexibility which is free of the constraining rigidity of routines. To others, it means a disconcerting lack of stability and structure, and unrealistic expectations of employees’ “adaptability”.
Depending on the vantage point from which it is viewed, and experienced, agile working can both positively and negatively impact people’s work environments and conditions. It can offer scope for creativity and autonomy, and/or ominously increase the online surveillance of staff. Accordingly, meaningful efforts to address workplace inequalities must recognise that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to agile working.
Institutions often encourage individuals, including those who are chronically ill and/or disabled, to “work on” their approach to planning, pacing, and prioritising to “improve” their health/wellbeing and “work/life balance”. When employers treat planning, pacing, and prioritising as something that is simply a matter of choice, they uphold ableist notions of productivity and what it means to be a so-called “good worker”. Specifically, intersecting inequalities such as racism, sexism, classism, and ableism yield drastically different employer expectations of, and responses to, the planning, pacing, and prioritising of various employees (e.g. “you’re expected to be twice as good…” is a mantra instilled into the lives of many Black and Asian people from an early age).
It is important for organisations to understand that everybody works differently and in different circumstances. This needs to be especially acknowledged for those who are impacted by intersecting inequalities and who can lack protections and accommodations in online work. If employers are truly dedicated to taking action to address inequalities in changing work environments, they must move beyond simply issuing self-soothing statements about their equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) commitments, and must demonstrate the same agility and flexibility that they often expect of their employees. Ultimately, people who feel “at home” at work are those who are proactively supported by employers and in ways that are respectful of important work-home boundaries.