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31 March 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 2:57pm

The great Zoom divide: why working from home is a privilege

White-collar workers are more likely to feel both financially and emotionally secure during the pandemic. What can be done for everyone else? 

By Courtney Fingar

The vast majority of offices in the UK have switched to working from home (WFH) by now, leading to much breathless commentary about the future of work. Offices: who needs them? They’re so BC: Before Coronavirus. Maybe we will never return to our clustered workstations, the logic goes. And as the crisis carries on, potentially for many more months, this seems inevitable. 

But there is a huge missing piece. How can a person work from home if he or she works with their hands? The simple answer, of course, is a person doesn’t. 

The WFH phenomemon very clearly only applies – can only apply  to white-collar workers with office jobs. Those engaged in manual labour can’t work from home, so have little choice but to keep working, or find themselves unemployed. The next great socio-economic divide, then, is the Zoom”  factor: the kinds of jobs that can be done via video chat versus those requiring a physical presence. 

Supporting the WFH and self-isolating economy is an army of factory and warehouse workers who are now busier than ever. There is much awareness and respect, rightfully, for medical staff who are at the frontlines of fighting Covid-19 – but what about those on the industrial frontlines? Who is protecting them? How can we keep essential supplies and functions running without exposing these workers to health risks? Is that even possible? 

With online orders surging, e-commerce giant Amazon has announced plans to add as many as 100,000 new workers. This was shortly followed by news that Amazon workers at ten US warehouses have tested positive for the virus. In a company memo shared on his Instagram account, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos insisted the company is taking “a series of preventative health measures” to protect staff, although some drivers have complained about shortages of essentials such as hand-sanitising gels and wipes. The war-time message to his troops is to carry on: “It’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical.”

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Indeed it is. And for manual labourers, it is critical to keep their livelihoods, meaning the choice they face – of going to work and jeopardising their health or sitting at home without a paycheque is hardly a choice at all. Their employers are also caught in a quandary: under pressure to keep supply chains running and the pipeline of goods flowing, they risk looking exploitative by packing hundreds into warehouses or on factory floors at a time when health experts call for isolation. The longevity of the crisis only adds to the complexities. 

“This is the twist in the story, the human element. We’re all being told ‘work from home’, ‘self-isolate’, but yet we need people working in factories to do the opposite,” says Sir George Buckley, chairman of Smiths Group. The UK-based company makes many things, including medically important ventilators. Production at its Luton factory is therefore ramping up. He is also chairman of Stanley Black & Decker, a US-based manufacturer of industrial tools and household hardware. Stanley Black & Decker have a factory in Sheffield. It has ordered hundreds of thousands of facemasks for its workers. 

“There is a moral responsibility for companies to provide proper protective [gear]. Many may be struggling with this, however. Masks don’t prevent an infection, but they keep you from giving it to someone else. They are going to be most effective in a factory setting where an infected worker can be prevented from giving it to someone else. Some workers are allergic to latex, although gloves are generally effective. It all has to be worked out,” he says. 

Where the government can be helpful, Sir George says, is in providing support for what he calls “the home or life supply chain” that impacts essential workers at production facilities: transportation or childcare, for example. Beyond the physical safety of production workers, there is an emotional and psychological level to consider, too. 

The telecommuting class has it easier on both fronts. Cocooned safely at home, they are not as exposed to the virus. And while spending large chunks of time indoors takes its toll on a person’s psyche, Roger Steare, an expert on corporate ethics, points out this is less emotionally taxing than the alternative. 

“People who work from home – providing they can talk with colleagues or see them on video will find greater psychological safety in that working environment. We as humans find our greatest psychological safety in the home,” he says, with the exception being those trapped in abusive relationships or volatile households. “Whereas our research shows that just over half the working population experiences psychological fear in the workplace.” 

That fear is usually centred around the pressure to hit targets or reach productivity goals, Mr Steare says. Taking the focus off these hard metrics when communicating with staff is one crucial way employers can guide their frontline workers through this challenging time. Language matters, as much as latex gloves. 

“People need to feel the work they are doing has a higher purpose that is going to help us come through this emergency together. Regardless of where and how they work, what matters is the meaning of someone’s work. So instead of a fear-driven culture stressing targets and productivity, smart leaders actually explain to their employees the value of their work,” he says.  

Viewed through this lens, Mr Bezos’s rallying cry about the critical importance of his employees’ work is prudent. The Zoom workers, for their part, can do little but be grateful – but in absence of anything else, that gratitude can count for a lot. Perhaps the next round of door-and-window applause can be in honour of anyone whose job has never called for a conference call.

Courtney Fingar is FDI editor at New Statesman Media Group and former editor-in-chief of fDi magazine

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