The global energy giant BP has told around 25,000 of its staff that working from home is now permanent. This is confirmation that ‘home-work’ is now globally locked in and not a temporary Covid ‘thing’.
BP is selling offices and moving to smaller premises as staff move to working two days and more from home. This is evidence of a working revolution. It’s a revolution that will throw the legal, academic, tax and political work–regulation establishment into utter confusion.
It makes the recent UK court decision to declare Uber drivers to be a ‘little bit’ employees combined with destructive self-employed tax laws, dangerous for the UK economy. It makes the Californian law making self-employment illegal look like a wall of sand trying to hold back an incoming tide. It makes the Victorian government’s agenda to outlaw self-employment look plain dumb.
The fact is that home–work will result in a productivity boom that will be difficult for statisticians to measure. How do you measure output per hours worked when someone is writing a report at home, stops, puts on the washing, returns to writing, stops, hangs out the washing, checks emails, heads off to collect the children from school and has several business phone calls in the car driving to pick up the children? How do you measure the huge time saving when the ‘commute’ to work is from your bedroom to the corner office in the spare bedroom?
But these are the productivity ‘realities’ that self-employed people have enjoyed and delivered for years. This is the self-employed work/life ‘balance’ truth which is now being realized by employees at BP and will predictably move through the corporate sector.
But here comes the push–back.
Property investors who have sunk big money into CBD corporate skyscrapers are crying into their bank accounts. ‘Save us’ they say! Force people into the factory fodder office environment to protect our skyscraper investments.
Corporate power junkie managers who only know how to manage people they can ‘see’ are panicked about their career prospects. How do we manage when we can’t ‘control’ people they ask?
Work safety officers who’ve written large safety manuals requiring firms to check the office toaster’s electrical wiring every year are worried. Do we need to check every worker’s kitchen toaster yearly? And what if a home worker trips over the family dog or a child’s toy? Who gets sued? Was the person ‘working’ or not ‘working’ at the point of falling over? It’s a legal nightmare for them!
Accountants who are locked into payments based on time are in abject confusion. They want to know how we guarantee that people are working the hours we are paying them for. ‘Ah’, say, smart technology companies, ‘buy our remote keystroke and computer monitoring software’. That is, they facilitate and promote ‘factory fodder’ right into the home!
‘Exploitation!’ scream unions and ‘worker rights’ academics! Those evil corporations are ripping off workers forcing them to work unpaid hours at home. They say we need more regulation and more laws.
I can just see a new law. ‘No home-worker may put washing out when working at home’.
It’s all nonsense of course. The incoming tide is largely located in the knowledge-based side of economic activity which is shifting from ‘hours’ to ‘results’ assessment of work. It’s been driven forward by technology for two decades and more, but Covid has given it a great kick along. A Covid ‘wake up’ we could call it. And how to handle this is not hard. This has been the work environment of self-employed people for a long time, indeed a lifetime of work for many.
What’s happening is the disintegration of the specific legally defined ‘employment’ relationship. That legal relationship holds that ‘employers’ ‘control’ ‘employees’. The taxation, industrial relations and most work laws assume this. Control of the price paid per hour of work is the basis of union power and their assumed authority to stop ‘exploitation’. ‘Employment’ underpins the assumptions about class power imbalance rolling more broadly through societies in areas of gender, ethnicity and so on.
The reality of self-employment based on self-control and payment on results butts up against these social and legal ‘employment’ assumptions. Employment as a generic term is looking more and more like self-employment as time-based pay is replaced by results-based remuneration.
The post-Covid home work revolution is pushing this trend harder. As more people work from home, even if not full-time, results-based remuneration becomes the logical outcome. Hours–based remuneration becomes awfully complicated.
We can probably be sure that this revolution in home-work, ‘employment’ (looking like self-employment) will be a major productivity booster. But as the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said when asked what he thought was the impact of the French Revolution he reputedly replied “Too early to say”. But watch this space. The revolution is here.
Oops. Gotta go. Havta put out the washing!
Ken Phillips is Executive Director of Self Employed Australia.
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