When flexible work and working-from-home became the industry norm, people assumed it would be a good thing for workers. The traditional office grind would naturally evolve into something better. But a recent report suggests that more freedom in where we work doesn’t necessarily equal better working conditions. Quite the reverse, actually.
COVID-19 triggered a tectonic shift in global work and compressed 5 years’ worth of change into two or three months. One side effect of that transformation was that real life conditions quickly outpaced existing labour laws and office boundaries. Employers realised they could squeeze employees in ways they couldn’t before, and staff felt pressured to work longer hours, for less money.
The evidence suggests that people don’t have a better work-life balance since the pandemic. If anything we’re working harder.
According to the latest figures, Australians each work an average of 319 hours of unpaid overtime every year. And that number is growing rapidly. In 2019, we worked an extra 4.62 hours each week without pay. During the pandemic, that jumped to 5.25 hours per week. In 2021, we’re already up to 6.13 hours – or about $125 billion in collective unpaid income. That’s according to the latest survey results from independent think tank, The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.
“What’s happening is that the commute is being replaced by extra working hours,” says Sean Gallagher, director of the Centre for the New Workforce at Swinburne University of Technology.
And it’s not just unpaid overtime. A rise in employee monitoring software has prompted calls for new laws to protect workers from inappropriate surveillance. Remote work has given some employers social license to monitor their staff on a very granular – some would say insidious – level. These new technologies, which can range from simple time-tracking apps all the way to microchips and Amazon’s infamous biometric feedback indicators, have arguably outpaced existing employment legislation.
What once sounded Orwellian and far-fetched is now being woven into everyday life for many remote workers. According to the latest survey results, 39% of workers say their employers track them with webcams and keystroke counters, and a further 17% were unsure if their employer was monitoring them electronically.
“We have seen a significant increase of interest in employee monitoring technology through the pandemic,” says Helen Poitevin, VP analyst at Gartner focusing on human capital management technologies. “This continues as organisations plan for hybrid work environments, with employees working more flexibly from home and at the office.”
Interestingly, no-one actually wants to go back to the old way of working – not even workers putting in extra overtime. New surveys suggest we actually want a more elastic work week: roughly 1.5 days at home, 3.7 days in the office, and 2.8 ‘flexible’ days. And this isn’t a nice-to-have, either. It’s going to be a deal-breaker: 43% of workers say they would leave their current employer for one that offered more flexible work conditions.
Then there are the flow-on effects, which are harder to measure and fix, but no less significant. Remote workers tend to feel the least connected to their organisation, the least supported at work, have the lowest levels of purpose, and report difficulties in getting tasks done. The evidence suggests that we want more flexible work, but both employers and employees haven’t yet figured out a way to make it more equitable, more balanced, and more productive.
Gallagher says employers need to understand the difference between flexible work and simply more work. If companies don’t invest in the mental wellbeing of their employees, poor staff retention will eventually force them to make a change.
“The job satisfaction needs to be a sharp focus of the employer to make sure those home-based workers are satisfied in their jobs, otherwise, they’re just going to go elsewhere,” he says. “[Remote workers] find that they’re more productive, better able to focus and are actually better able to take a break, but on the concerning side, they’re least satisfied with their jobs.”
With no boundaries now between where we live and where we work, we need a new way to keep the two separate. The office as we knew it might be dead, but office culture has clearly followed us home.