Richard Turnbull: The Ethics of Working from Home

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is a shift in attitudes and practices of remote working at least some of which are likely to be permanent.

A survey undertaken by the Institute of Directors of around 1,000 firms found that 74% plan on maintaining or increasing the amount of home working and more than 50% intended to put into effect a long-term reduction of office space.

These moves have a number of implications from an ethical point of view, both from the perspective of the individual and also corporately and more widely. Working from home is not new in itself. Many individuals operate from home, either as individual professionals (eg the clergy) or as self-employed, running a business. Others, maybe more senior executives will operate home offices or simply be able on occasion to work from home. All of these examples have had to figure out issues of boundaries, ethics and so on. There are both gains and losses. What is perhaps different now is the scale and the permanence.

What then are the key issues?


The question of moral character

Ethics can be rule based or virtue orientated. Both are probably needed to some degree but a lot of arguments around ethical issues in business revolve around the relative emphasis placed on rules or moral character. Home working increases the negative aspects of rules (specific timings for being signed on; monitoring software) and hence also increases the importance of moral character; the employee recognising their professional responsibilities and acting accordingly. In the long term, greater weight given to the development of moral character can only be beneficial for business ethics.


Increased flexibility for both employer and employee

There are gains in flexibility for both employer. The individual can manage the boundaries between work and home in real time, flexibility increased by the reduction in commuting. Employers can manage their office space more flexibly and efficiently. Nevertheless, there cannot be total flexibility (an employee choosing to work from 1am to 9am) as there are corporate, commercial objectives that involve more than the individual.


Financial and environmental savings and gains

The financial savings for both employee and employer could be considerable. For the individual employee this is not simply less commuting cost and time, but, rather, if a physical presence in the office or elsewhere is required say once or twice a week, the individual can reside further away and hence, potentially, open up less expensive housing and further potential improvements to lifestyle. For the employer less city centre office space will be needed; or, indeed, no office space at all in the traditional business districts – which, of course, has knock-on effects on employment.

Clearly, there are also environmental gains to be made from home working; less commuting, pollution, emissions, gains replicated in a move to smaller office spaces. Clearly this is not all on one direction, but the gains should not be overlooked.


The complexities of remote management

There are, however, a number of clearly negative factors in this move to home working. One of these is the increased complexity of remote team management. The resources required for managers to oversee a wide range of employees all working from home are considerable, time-consuming, and not necessarily efficient.


Loss of professional engagement and team efficiency

Indeed, to follow on from the last point, there is a major loss in home working from the point of view of both individual and the employer in terms of the profession gains from face-to-face engagement. For the individual home working can be incredibly lonely (only partially mitigated by Zoom or its equivalent) and there is a considerable loss of professional engagement. A significant amount of job satisfaction derives from the daily engagement with those similarly engaged, either simply the social interactions of work, or, in professional environments, the intellectual stimulation and debate. For the employer, there is also the matter that these issues may have direct negative impact on team efficiency and commercial outcomes. An individual may or may not be more efficient working from home, but it is certainly the case that lack of teams meeting, working, planning and engaging together will reduce efficiency and have commercial consequences.


Varied capacity for home working

Both employers and employees face difficulties generated by different employees having varied capacities to work from home. Issues ranging from space, children, mental well-being will mean that one size will not fit all. How is space to be allocated in offices? Will this varied capacity mean first and second-class employees? Savings may accrue disproportionately.

Home working is almost certainly here to stay, at least in a significantly increased way for the next period of time.

There are many advantages, but it is not a panacea. Both employers and employees will need to work through new ways of operating and working. In addition, the tax system is not really geared for home working and changes may also be needed there. The development of virtue in moral character is essential. The losses, however, from the loss of personal human engagement are considerable and this, I think, will act as a counter to the move towards home working.

Finally, spare a thought for commercial property funds, or those parts of mixed funds!


Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.