The New Normal Has Some Pretty Hard Questions

Photo credit: iStockphoto/eternalcreative

Talking about the “new normal” of working remotely and from home has become one of the givens, almost a cliché, of the COVID-19 pandemic period.

For some, it’s been a joyous transition. They have dispensed with the expensive and lengthy commute and settled back in their comfortable home offices and continued to work while enjoying rare quality time with their families.

For others, it’s been more of a struggle. People stuck in small flats working from makeshift areas in their bedrooms, juggling crying babies as they alternate Zoom calls with their partners has been another image of work during pandemic.

So many unanswered questions

Now that Australia and New Zealand are coming out of lockdown, we’ll start to see what the features of the so-called “new normal” really are in these countries.

Will staggered office times for different teams become a thing? Will people really have the choice of working from home a few days a week, or working full time from home? What about the occupational health and safety aspects of your home as a workplace?

Then, there are the legal issues surrounding this. If you are working at home and fall down the steps on our way to answer the door, are you covered by your employer’s workers’ compensation provisions? Whose responsibility is it to alter the workplace to make it safe, if it is also the employees’ home? And who provides the soap in the bathroom?

There is also the question of employee availability. If the workplace is a home, and an employee is there all the time, then does that mean they are always available? In some cases, employers are likely to make assumptions on this to the detriment of employees.

Many employers will not have thought anything about this when, at the height of the crisis, they closed up their offices and sent people to work from home. But several pieces of Australian law — largely based on State law — suggest that employers have responsibilities and liabilities in this area.

Under Australian occupational health and safety laws, for example, employers have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment, even if that environment is at home.

The dilemma is that most employers, in the current environment, will have had no chance at all to inspect the home offices of their employees to make sure they are safe. It will fascinating to see if there is any litigation coming out of the current period based on these laws.

Is remote working workable?

Two researchers from Australia’s Centre for Future Work — part of the Australia Institute think tank — have been looking at this and have put their thoughts into a research paper called Working from Home: Opportunities and Risks.

The paper, written by Alison Pennington and Jim Stanford, suggest that — in Australia at least — there are economic and legal issues to be resolved before remote working can become more common. And for many employees, it may not be the work nirvana it appeared originally.

“In a climate of mass unemployment and pervasive insecurity, home work could become a ‘baptism of fire’,” the report says. “Workers could be compelled to ‘prove themselves’ more energetically than every to their employers in hopes of protecting their jobs in the turbulent months ahead.”

“Some employers will take advantage of this sense of insecurity to intensify work and tighten discipline. For instance, Deloitte recently warned its staff to email to be as ‘productive as possible’ while working from home or else risk redundancy,” the report adds.

Then there is the issue of shifting the cost of business to the home.

Many employers will be looking at their rental bill and deciding they can ditch the expensive office, but as the researchers point out, the flip side is that they should be liable for the incremental costs of setting up an appropriate home workspace for employees, and also pay fixed up-front costs.

Many people simply won’t have a suitable space in their home to convert to an office. So, will they have to move and will the employer pay the rental or mortgage difference?

This raises issues of negotiating fair allowances under industrial relations law, and the prospect of inserting work allowance clauses into workplace agreements.

Is employee monitoring at home legal?

Then there are the issues of monitoring and surveillance. In 2018 — pre-pandemic — the Centre for Future Work estimated that 70% of Australian workers had experienced one or more forms of digital surveillance in their workplace to police their efforts.

The researchers warn that this trend could find its way into the home.

“Group conference software Sneek has the capacity to send webcam pictures of employees working at home, taken every few minutes, to their managers,” the report says.

“Its popularity with employers has expanded with the growth in home work due to COVID-19.”

The problem is that Australian laws on employee surveillance are undeveloped, and only one state has comprehensive provisions.

“The misuse of these technologies is a long run challenge to fair work that needs to be addressed through ongoing research, regulation and legislation,” the report says before going on to a list of recommendation on “doing home work right.”

The issue now is that we have rushed headlong into working from home by necessity. But many of the frameworks to deal with the consequences are not yet properly formed.

Something for the next phase, as economies move out of lockdown and society gets back to that enigmatic “new normal.”

Photo credit: iStockphoto/eternalcreative