Can we afford more time at home?

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The Independent Online

A new survey confirms what we all know - that there's no easy way to fit a pint into a half-pint pot. The survey is the first of the Government's investigations in a campaign to improve people's work-life balance. Launched in March to encourage employers to adopt flexible working, the campaign has admirable aims, one of which is to help people to make more of their private and family life.

A new survey confirms what we all know - that there's no easy way to fit a pint into a half-pint pot. The survey is the first of the Government's investigations in a campaign to improve people's work-life balance. Launched in March to encourage employers to adopt flexible working, the campaign has admirable aims, one of which is to help people to make more of their private and family life.

So where do half-pints come into it? Well, the scheme is an attempt to find solutions to the work-life dilemma without resorting to the economy-busting but obvious answer: in order to spend more time lavishing attention on other aspects of our lives, we actually have to work less. The question is, do we really want to?

And one thing the survey appears to confirm is that there is no way round this. Of 7,500 workers canvassed, only 5 per cent said that they wanted to work at home so that they could look after their children. Sensible people. Anyone who has tried that knows that it is a pretty difficult act to pull off. If your children are actually in the house while you're trying to work, they are a constant distraction. Even if they are bodily absent, the home environment continually chastises carers about the things they ought to be doing for their children but aren't.

Only by getting out of the house and going to work do many parents really escape from the demands of their children. In the office, you're a slightly different person, with a different role and a different focus. For many mothers, time at work is the only genuine break from the domestic role.

For those who can discipline themselves to work efficiently from home, there are benefits. You can get started as soon as the children go off to school or nursery, and knock off when they finish, rather than spending time travelling to and from work at either end of the day. If they are ill or on holiday, it may be easier to work after they've gone to bed, rather than during the day, as long as you have enough stamina. But on the whole, if you're trying to do a full-time job, whether at home or at work, then you're overstretched.

That may be why the results of the survey, broken down by gender, seem to contradict ideas about flexible working as espoused by the Government. Flexible working was expected to be embraced most enthusiastically by working mothers, since mothers remain, in almost all cases, the primary carers for children; but the results of the survey turn that wisdom on its head.

A quarter of men work from home already, and half of the rest would like to. Whereas only 16 per cent of women work from home, while, tellingly, less than a third of the others would prefer to work that way. Men say that at home they can get on with the job, free from the distractions of the office. But for women, the office is a distraction in itself, a world full of grown-ups where children can be left behind. That is part of the reason why workplace crÿches are better in principle than in practice.

The Department for Education and Employment says, quite rightly, "Working from home has advantages for companies and staff. There can be improvements in efficiency and improvements in quality of life. Advances in new technology mean it is now possible for more people to work from home than ever before."

But there is a downside as well. Before the changes in the workplace won by feminism, mothers at home often took on ill-paid piecework to supplement their income. The modern equivalent is contract work from home, with a telephone and a script, to keep people with dependent children working but isolated. Another burgeoning development is contract work generally, in which a self-employed person receives few of the benefits that would accrue to a staffer, but works for a sustained period for a single employer anyway. A quarter of Britain's four million "self-employed" workers sign such contracts.

Naturally, this is a way of employing people that employers are extremely keen on, while unions and government are less keen. Again, it serves women less well, since the employment right that is most valuable to the majority of women is the right to maternity leave. But during pregnancy and birth, despite having to all intents and purposes a single employer, many woman find that in reality they are entirely freelance.

A long list of professions is hit by that, from the media to construction workers, and particularly IT workers. The unions generally find contract working to be among the most threatening situations to the rights of their workers, and the Government agrees that the practice erodes people's rights. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, is drawing up proposals that would put a curb on the advantages enjoyed by corporations that employ large numbers of staff while denying them workers' rights. Already, employers are up in arms about it.

Again, that is an example of how flexible working - in this case the flexibility of self-employment - often works in the favour of the employer and not the employed. For high-earning people, contracts work well. For low-earning people, they do not. Often, people working under contract are expected to come into the office every day, just as they would as a staffer. Except, of course, that the employer takes on few of the obligations that taking on a new member of staff would entail.

It's an interesting anomaly. A quarter of staffers are working from home - the male ones anyway - while a quarter of the self-employed are, in effect, tied to a single company. For the latter, the only change to the work-life balance is that their time at home is nibbled into by the need to keep their own books and sort out their own tax and national insurance.

It is surely clear that the only way to alter the work-life balance is to change radically our attitudes to work. Contractors do get a few universal rights, which include not only the still-risible national minimum wage, but also the right to work no more than a 48-hour week.

But those rights speak most powerfully about the poor regard in which we hold human time. If time at home is so precious, then how can sacrificing an hour of that time not be of more value than the amount the minimum wage confers on it? As for the 48-hour-week working-hours limit, that really should be slashed. It is far too high, as the people of most European countries firmly agree.

As far as the work-life balance is concerned, those are the twin factors that need to change before the balance can be altered. While reactionaries are still astoundingly fond of blaming the disruption of the work-life balance on women who wanted equal rights with men, the real problem is that the equality that women received played into the hands of employers. We all need to work shorter hours, whether at home or at work, whether self-employed or on staff.

Socially, Britain's population is still largely arranged into couples, and nowadays each couple with children is contributing as much as double the amount it did 50 years ago. As for single parents, a sole adult is expected to provide the same amount of work inside and outside the home as was once provided by two adults.

That is the primary fact that has messed up the work-life balance. And any survey that seeks to tinker with the work-life balance without tackling that exhausting and debilitating development will always find its expectations confounded.