Covid has shown that flexible working is only a benefit for a select few | Sonia Soda

IIt is strange now to remember that two years ago we had just entered a three month period of government imposed hermitage after the first wave of Covid. Living alone, forbidden to spend time with anyone else, my social life consisted of Saturday nights in front of my laptop doing a virtual pub quiz. It quickly became the new normal, but now I wonder how I was able to adapt.

One aspect of life in lockdown that I would like to reintroduce, however, is working less. As a part-week freelancer, for a while there was just less work available. And so, after writing about the theory of the four-day week, I found myself living it in practice. Lucky enough to allow myself to take the hit, I found that I liked having more time to myself – even if there wasn’t much to do.

It made me a more enthusiastic supporter of shorter working hours. I will therefore follow with interest the results of the world’s largest four-day week pilot launched last week. The trial will involve 3,000 workers from 60 UK companies, who will receive the same pay for a shorter working week.

The case for a four-day week begins with the idea that human progress should not only be measured by the accumulation of “things”, but rather by time. One hundred and fifty years ago, Britons worked an average of one 62 hour week, a terrible thought. Who says our current idea of ​​full-time work, the five-day week, is the right one? As wheel-to-widget technology means that societies can produce more and more with the same human input, it seems obvious to think that we should reap some of the gains by enriching our lives with more time spent with people than we like on the things we value, rather than more consumer goods.

There are other advantages. Substituting more time for increases in collective wealth will also be better for the environment. And by embedding a more flexible work culture for both men and women, a shorter work week would help reduce gender pay gap (much of which is due to part-time work preventing mothers from progressing in workplaces where full-time work is the norm).

The concern, however, is that only some will benefit from these changes. Our labor market is not only torn apart by wage inequalities, but also by working conditions, such as the degree of flexibility and autonomy granted to employees. This has been notable during the pandemic. While some of us have been able to work more flexibly from home, at times, admittedly, in less than ideal conditions, many others, especially those in lower-paying jobs, have experienced little changes in the way they work, having to put their health at risk to continue the daily grind. And now, as many white-collar companies embrace hybrid working, allowing their employees to reduce commuting, others are forced to pay more for less frequent public transport or face the rising cost of fuel to get to and from work.

The technology experience was also different. Zoom might not be quite the same as sitting in a room with co-workers, but for me it cut down on time spent in unnecessary meetings. In contrast, some workers say they have experienced greater use of surveillance technology since the pandemic, which was already being deployed by companies such as Amazon, who uses it to track the movements of workers in the warehouse. Tools such as monitoring keystrokes and phone calls erode autonomy, privacy and trust between employer and employee.

While 80% of us say we would like to reduce our work week, few are actually able to negotiate this with their employers without losing pay. Historic massive reductions in working time have been achieved through collective bargaining. But today, a fraction of employees is covered by collective agreements and the typical union member is a middle-income professional public sector employee, with low-wage private sector workers in the cold. It is also easy to see how the productivity argument, the idea that people working shorter weeks are more efficient and can therefore do almost as much work in less time, appeals more to white-collar employers than to labor-intensive service sectors. interaction, such as childcare and social assistance.

The danger is therefore that better-off workers, who are in a position to demand more of their employees, benefit from working time innovations, while less well-off workers feel little of the advantages. This happened in Francewhere, despite higher levels of unionisation, managers have benefited disproportionately from working time reduction measures.

The government also appears to be backtracking on its overt commitment to making flexible working the default. He picked cheap fights over flexible working like tabloid fodderwith ministers accusing civil servants working from home of laziness and appearing to support a “it’s not work if you’re not at your desk” Culture.

The difficulty is that improvements in working time are not different from those in remuneration. They cost employers money and involve a redistribution of profits from owners to workers. The share of GDP that goes to workers in the form of wages is lower than it was at its peak in 1970s and the average working time hasn’t changed much since either.

The risk of this new trial is therefore to demonstrate that a switch to a shorter working week is not free and is therefore ignored by most employers, except those who see it as a way to more competitive when it comes to recruitment and retention. The economic reality is that a shorter workweek will never be achieved through the goodwill of employers. Just as it took the labor movement to negotiate the deep cuts in working hours that meant people no longer had to work on Saturdays, it will only happen in an economy where workers have more power to bargain for what is good for them.

Sonia Sodha is a columnist at Observer

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