Working from home, ain’t it a joy? I certainly thought so when I wrote a post on the subject not long after joining ConservativeHome in 2012. Back then, the prospect of permanently occupying a dressing gown whilst playing video games, only occasionally pressing the pause button to check emails, was an exciting one. A glorious future beckoned.
Now, over three years later, the dream lives on. I really do play video games during the hours when most other people are dealing with Bob from Accounts. My dressing gown does get quite a lot of wear. But I’ve also discovered that working from home is more difficult than it’s often cracked up to be. The future has its downsides.
But first, some numbers. This post isn’t just about me, but about the millions of other people who now work from home. According to what appear to be the Office for National Statistics’ most recently published statistics, there were 4.2 million home workers at the start of 2014. This had risen from 3.7 million at the start of 2010, or by almost 15 per cent, which is a three-times faster growth rate than for the number of jobs in the economy as a whole. I expect it’s even higher now.
This is all part of the great, unequivocal change that George Osborne has presided over: to the nature of our labour market. Many of those home workers share other characteristics with the new model employee. 36 per cent work in the part-time region of less than 30 hours a week. 64 per cent of them are self-employed.
This isn’t all the Chancellor’s doing, of course. Economic happenings never are. The rise of home working has been carried by immense tidal swells such as the development of the Internet. The recession, like all recessions, also rearranged our daily routines.
But Osborne must nonetheless be pleased at how it has all gone down. We know that he operates according to the not-entirely-insensible principle that work is a good thing in itself, and these home-working types are a fine expression of that. Not for them the restraints of the public sector, nor even of a typical nine-to-five job in the private sector. They’re thought to be more productive than their office-bound counterparts, which is pretty handy when the economy has a productivity problem.
This was one the arguments behind last year’s National Work from Home Day. Other arguments included: it enables us to spend more time with our families; it relieves the strain on our nation’s creaky transport system; it means that, with practice, we can actually be competitive in online games of StarCraft 2 against South Korean teenagers; and so on. Working from home is marketed as the Promised Land.
Except they don’t say much about the less promising parts. So let me tell you: there are some days, when a tax return needs completing, or when the dread loneliness sets in, that make a guy yearn for the conveniences of office life.
The statistics don’t say much about this either, but they do say something. The ONS’s research contains the striking finding that home workers are more likely than their outgoing counterparts to work “extreme hours,” which is to say, over 45 a week. As I type this at 1am, I know the feeling. Working from home has a weird open-endedness to it. It’s less working as much as you want, and more working as much as you can. For some, perhaps at the part-time end of the scale, it might not be enough. For others, at the extreme sports end, it might be too much.
These are the sorts of contradictions that that David Kirkby touched upon in his post for this website last weekend, and in his recent report for Bright Blue, even if his subject was specifically the self-employed worker, and even more specifically the low-paid self-employed worker. There is an air of modernity about our diverse, free-wheeling labour market. Yet, behind it, many people are struggling as they always have.
A functioning Labour Party could turn these people into a cause. After all, they’re not just insufferable media jerks like me; they are farmers and bricklayers and other forms of entrepreneur. And as their numbers grow, so too might their collective frustration. Broadband that’s never up to speed? Quarterly tax returns? There are votes to be found in this exasperated territory.
But we don’t have a functioning Labour Party. We have a Conservative Government that is practically unopposed, and it must try to act in the best interests of all the people. Any great change makes losers out of some, even if doesn’t appear to on the surface. There are few greater changes, at the moment, than those happening within our labour market.
As for myself, the joys of working from home still far outnumber the disadvantages, so I don’t want to sound too down about it. It’s just that we hear so little about those disadvantages. That ought to be rectified if this constant hustle really is the way of the future.