Rewriting the social contract

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Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Professor Mark Stuart is Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation at Leeds University Business School, founder of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, and Co-Director of the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre. His current research focuses on the wide-ranging effects of digitalisation on the future of work; restructuring and displacement in the steel sector; and union modernisation, skills and learning.

Professor Mark Stuart, Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation

This article first appeared on Soldo and has been reposted here with permission.

Prepaid business card provider, Soldo, spoke to Professor Mark Stuart, the Montague Burton Chair in HR Management and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds. Mark currently co-directs the ESRC Research Centre, Digital Futures at Work (Digit), is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and is a past President of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA). He specialises in employment relations, HR, workforce dialogue, learning at work, public policy engagement.

Moving to remote working can be a shock to the system - both for managers and their employees. It changes employees’ work rhythms and the rhythm of the business too. For leaders who are thinking about productivity and trying to keep a team together, it’s a genuine management challenge, isn’t it?

Yes it is. But I think it's worth saying that there have been debates for over 20 years about flexible working and the mobile workforce aided by technology.  If you go back historically to the development of working life, home-working was essentially the norm. Then, under capitalism, activity became located within workplaces; but technology has now freed the workforce from that to some extent. So remote working is not new.

The debate around mobile working also probably overstates its significance in terms of the general proportion of the workforce. Many consultancy contributions talk about people working in coffee shops. Yes, some of us do this quite often, but it's not that prevalent as a percentage of the labour force, and it’s restricted to particular sectors and certain types of workers.

But yes, managing a remote workforce is incredibly difficult. The academic literature on  remote working has been split between whether it offers increased discretion and flexibility to workers or alternatively whether it is actually an increased form of management control, where leaders don't have to manage face-to-face and can instead essentially manage on a more granular level through the technology.

And we do see this in workers, for example, who operate through on-demand platforms: the technology can measure how long it takes for them to do tasks, how often they're doing their tasks, how much of a break they have away from the computer, and so on.

Elsewhere however, remote working can mean that it's very hard to know what people are or are not doing; and there has to be a degree of trust in the working relationship.

It all depends on the type of occupation, the type of work and the sector. In my experience, relatively low-skilled work that can be carefully categorized into discrete tasks allows for management to observe activity very systematically. And that’s very different to knowledge workers who are performing more highly skilled tasks that rely on their discretion and creativity.

So management of remote workers varies, without doubt.

There is however some consensus that the classic manager’s fear of remote workers slacking simply is not true. On the contrary, I think that working remotely has led to an intensification of work. People are probably doing more hours: they don’t have to commute, but they feel the need to prove their worth.

The more practical questions of how business leaders can successfully manage their colleagues, means setting very clear tasks, keeping in contact with their immediate subordinates or using line managers to have regular catch-up sessions. 

Is there a basic set of ground rules that a company can put in place for remote workers?  It seems to be a double-edged sword: managers want to give their teams freedom, but then employees also need clarity as to what's expected of them, for example.

This is hugely challenging, because as discussed , the ground rules depend on the nature of the business and its work - one set of rules won’t suit every company. So let’s instead pull back and consider the logic of those ground rules.

I think companies should establish a clear psychological or social contract between themselves and staff who are working remotely. The problem is that it's hard to specify everything concretely on a piece of paper, because different people work in particular ways. There's always an element of discretion in the employment relationship, so perhaps it’s more important as a starting point to recognize that there are two sets of interests and perspectives in play: management and the worker.

The next step – and it’s often missing – is a clear rationale as to why the employee is working remotely; which should be business-specific. It could, for example be due to reasonable adjustments for an employee with a disability who needs the space to be able to work from home. It could be a flexible working regime built around childcare. Or perhaps it’s the salesperson who travels to see clients.

The expectations on both sides should be clear; management must make clear the outcomes they expect from employees; and I think that employees have a right to clarity as to what's expected of them as effective delivery. This is often the biggest problem with remote working – ‘I didn't know that I was supposed to do this by Friday - I thought I could send it to you when I finished’ and so on.

But with the rationale agreed upfront, those expectations can be both clear and considered reasonable by both sides. That’s what I mean by a fair and equitable social contract.

Thereafter, I think that communication is crucial. There should be structured contact between a remote worker and their managers; again designed around the work that needs to be done.

Is there also an issue around demonstrating that you're treating both in-office and remote workers fairly and equally?

I think that's a fair point.  You go to meetings, and someone remote has not turned up, so everyone spends time trying to get them on Skype! These experiences can be quite frustrating and create resentment with other colleagues, who then reinforce the false stereotype that remote workers are slacking.

There needs to be some transparency between colleagues, as well as between managers and colleagues, based on sensible communication, as to how they can work usefully together and gel.

What should companies be paying for in order to help their remote workers?

This is a big area of controversy.  If you look at platform work (Uber, Deliveroo etc.), then the workers buy all their equipment – the platform provider is only liable for providing the connection to customers. The spectrum moves round from there.

In many cases, a firm will supply remote workers with IT equipment and connectivity, but they wouldn't contribute towards electricity, heating and so forth. The employee can offset some of those expenses against their annual tax liability but that claim can then sometimes raise wider issues: your mortgage, for example, might prohibit you from working at home.

This is a slightly murky area, so let me give you my views on what the situation should be. If a company is employing people with the expectation that they work remotely, then they should firstly provide adequate resources to do the job. Most obviously, that is the relevant technologies – for example a computer and a phone. They should pay for the means by which that hardware operates, so Wi-Fi and broadband - that to me seems to be the basic necessities.

There are also important legal rights for employers around Health and Safety. This is an area which employers sometimes think they might be able to circumvent by having their people work remotely; but they should cover any cost incurred in abiding by those regulations. That could involve the cost of setting up an office: a desk, an ergonomically designed chair and so on.

I said that it’s a murky area, and I think the exodus to remote-working from Coronavirus makes it even murkier. Big employers with offices containing thousands of workers decamped to their homes with no notice whatsoever; they could not have hoped to assess every employee’s working conditions, and that’s entirely understandable, but work continued nevertheless. So there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre here.

You're a specialist in employment relations.  Do we have an opportunity with increases in remote working to improve productivity by changing company organisational structures?

It's a big issue because we have a productivity problem across the UK economy, and it’s been going on for a long time. Yes, there is an opportunity to effect change. But what that would actually mean in terms of improvements in productivity is an open question. It would involve organizations looking at work in very radical ways. It connects with the wider business strategy, business processes, management practices and such like. Often you might see a part of the equation, but not the whole thing.

For example, we have 50 employees in this building. They could be working from home and then we could sell the building and not pay for the upkeep of the estate. But that can only work if business processes and management practices flex accordingly too. So it’s crucial that companies see the whole of what remote working means in terms of organizational restructuring; the changes needed to make it effective and to keep workers productive. The first issue is to ensure that existing levels of productivity are maintained, the second step is to look at how it could be improved.

If we look at the current situation, Coronavirus will produce something of a shock to the system in a number of industries; and in a number of occupations it will incentivise employers who have been wanting to restructure the way they work. But how that will play out post-crisis is an open question because it's going to be followed by sustained political and economic challenges. Things have a tendency to go back to normal, or a new normal, but researchers in the world of work will be talking about workplace restructuring for many years to come.

Is there an opportunity in remote working for employees to upskill? Can a remote working regime create better employees in general?

Not just better employees, but maybe a more progressive approach to the way in which people work in general and also wider questions around job quality and working time.

Apart from industries where working remotely is part-and-parcel of the job, in most organizations it is seen as something of an employee benefit or falls under the heading of flexible working practices. It could offer workers the ability to balance work and home life in a more flexible way. In my experience, that's not yet happening, because the attempt to move everything from the physical to the virtual world is happening without looking at the accommodations that need to be made to make it work. We can’t get the kids to school and still spend eight hours in Zoom meetings! I think there should be a debate on how remote working can connect with improvements in the quality of working life, and the way that the rhythms by which people do their work can be accommodated. Modern businesses can contribute to that debate as they consider remote working.

That aside, there is also an opportunity for employees to develop new skills, using recovered time to be able to engage in lifelong learning.  I think there will be a need for a certain re-equipping of the workforce as remote working becomes more extensive, because people need to work in different ways to be at their most productive. Certainly I know that the time I'm spending talking to people through Zoom and Teams is taking a lot longer than if I bumped into them in the corridor or if I had a meeting scheduled at my workplace!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Managers and workers have different perspectives. Therefore agree on the rationale for remote working and set delivery expectations based on that rationale. This will be easier to justify and agree on both sides – a ‘social contract’ for remote workers.
  • The techniques required to manage a remote workforce depends on the work being done. The more repetitive the work, the more likely a  technology solution will ensure productivity – but it won’t create happy workers. Either way, be clear about expectations and catch up regularly.
  • Remote working doesn’t lead to slacking. If anything, people work harder (although not necessarily as productively).
  • Colleagues should also be transparent with each other. With the right communication and understanding as to why different employees have different working arrangements, the team is more likely to gel and perform.
  • The law around remote working, and companies’ interpretation of it, is quite open. A company should at least provide adequate resources to do the job, effectively and safely.
  • Remote working can improve productivity – but it will require effort from business leaders in improving processes and management practice. If remote working is seen less as a perk and more as a way to improve efficiency, managers will be more successful in creating value.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.