Remote work has established itself throughout the past two years. The change to labour suddenly taking place in the private sphere of our own homes has led to drastic changes and raised a debate about what exactly can be called ´real´ work.
During 2020 around 40% of workers in the European Union switched to working from home. This marked a rise of 35% compared to 2019 where only 5,4% of EU-employees worked remotely—the majority of them being women.
But even before facing the challenges of a global pandemic, working from home has been the only practicable way to combine both their paid and unpaid work. Unpaid work includes tasks like childcare and household duties which, even in 2022, are still predominantly carried out by women.
In 2020 12.3% of EU-employees started to work remotely on a regular basis with 41% of EU-women working from home—and this is not a coincidence. A report by the European Foundation for the improvement of working and living conditions issued in late 2020 has found that the work-life balance of women has been affected to a much greater extent by the overall effects of the pandemic than those of men. Women, for example, were found to carry a much heavier burden of care responsibilities. Simultaneously, young women were more likely to lose their jobs compared to their male coworkers. This depicts an utterly different picture of the way employees adapted to the changes work life has undergone within the past two years.
Carework is work
The divide between working in the private and the public sphere has manifested itself for centuries. Even though work itself has undergone some drastic changes with ongoing digitalization and globalization, the changes remain limited. The perception of work in the private sphere, often referred to as carework, versus work taking place in the public sector has differed enormously.
Carework such as childcare, cleaning and cooking duties have historically been unequally distributed in households. The majority of the work is still taken care of by women. This is clearly linked to gender stereotypes and gender based discrimination in social (and public) institutions. Even after centuries of fighting for women’s rights and emancipation, men are perceived as the main breadwinners in most families.
On the challenges of Teleworkers
With the surge of remote work during the crisis, many challenges of working from home have been highlighted. Overall, it can be stated that remote workers are less protected in their own homes. This is especially noteworthy when talking about women that live with abusive partners and/or under poor living conditions.
“In addition to being less protected in the ‘private’ space, home-based teleworkers are at risk of being sidelined at their workplace, with reduced professional visibility and career prospects and less access to information and personal and professional support.” Kalina Arabajieva and Paula Franklin, Researchers at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)
Additionally, most of them experience reduced professional visibility, which stems from them not being physically present at meetings etc. This then leads to their isolation from the in-office team.
The lack of physical presence also leads to reduced interpersonal exchange with the team. This can result in a lack of information and support—both personally and professionally—such as unionizing. That alone can lead to severe work-life conflicts disproportionately affecting women.
Protecting the health of remote workers
Telework is filled with psychosocial risks affecting the health of workers. Therefore, preventive measures must be undertaken to ensure the safety of those working from home. An overall review of the working conditions is required to ensure that the shift from office to home based or hybrid work can be adapted without workers losing the rights that the working class has fought for over the past centuries. Such changes have to be established within both the legal and the social landscape. But therefore, the binary divide between paid and unpaid work has to be questioned.
Establishing homeoffice as a protected working sphere
Even with all the challenges workers face when carrying out telework, many of them still want to work from home or at least have the opportunity to do so. However, the divide between work carried out from home versus such carried out in the public sphere leads to remote work from home being perceived as less valuable or not real work.
To support workers in their ability to divide their private from professional/work life, it is imperative to end the societal perception of remote work and unpaid domestic labor. Only this way can a better work-life balance for those with caring responsibilities be established. Both the rights and working conditions of teleworkers need to be protected—particularly of those with caring responsibilities.