2007 - 2020

Making it Happen

RBS Group – now miraculously transmuted into NatWest – has just announced that its 50,000 of its 60,000 total staff complement can continue to work online from home, until at least next year.  This is even more significant news than the transformation of the largely state-owned bank into a London-centred operation.
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Effectively, RBS/NatWest is using the Covid-19 emergency as an excuse to turn itself into a largely internet operation.  This transformation of the company’s business model has been going on for some time – witness the aggressive programme to shut bank branches across the Scotland. But the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from bricks and mortar. More importantly, this economic revolution is now advancing across Western capitalism at an unprecedented rate.  Truly, there will be no return to the capitalist world as it looked before the medical emergency.
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During the lockdown, an estimated 40% of all workers in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) industrialised countries continued to work from home.  The pre-pandemic norm is nearer a quarter for job categories deemed low or medium-skilled. This move to home working via the internet will become permanent.  One recent survey of chief financial officers found that 74% of companies intend to keep some proportion of their workforce on a permanent “remote status”.
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Apart from RBS/NatWest, examples include the giant Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in the US, ranked 73 in the Fortune 500 list of major American companies.  Nationwide has just announced it will close five of its large offices, asking employees to work from home.  Always ahead of the curve, Facebook announced in May that it was abandoning its traditional campus-style organisation in favour of having at least a half of its 48,000 employees working from home.  Traditionally, Facebook used free cafeterias and free dry-cleaning services to keep staff from going home. But the cost and human control options of the new home working has changed Zuckerberg’s mind.
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This is a return to home working in the straightforward meaning of the term.  We are not talking about traditional teleworking from call-centres.   In fact, call-centre companies are leading the charge towards isolated home working.  French-based Teleperformance, the world’s biggest call-centre company, says that around 150,000 of its global employees will not return to a collective worksite.  Teleperformance has call-centres in Glasgow and Airdrie.
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In recent years, discussion has centred on the threat to jobs involving mid-level administrative and decision-making skills being killed by the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems.  This threat is very real.  But the pandemic has revealed this process is more complex than we thought – and is being integrated with the shift to home working.  Take insurance and banking.  Job processes are being routinised, and AI introduced to assist with some bulk tasks (e.g. screening claims or applications).  Any remaining direct contact with customers can be handled by workers at home using a phone – with a Big Brother AI system monitoring the content, tone and outcome of each call, as well as policing work time and productivity.
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The gain to capitalist firms is enormous. There is a huge saving in fixed investment in the physical housing, heating, and feeding of staff, never mind in security costs and relevant insurance. Workers have suddenly become financially responsible for huge company overheads.  There are additional benefits to companies: isolating the vast bulk of their workforce at home will limit trade union organisation both physically and psychologically. The path is then open to a vast extension of the gig economy into white collar professions, as home working starts to centre on piece work policed by AI robots.
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Again, gender issues will start to rear their head.  Women workers with young families will be under intense pressure to work remotely from home – just wait for the predictable Daily Mail features explaining how “liberating” the new home working regime is for one’s “Life-work” balance.  And just think of the cuts local authorities can make to their spending on nurseries.  Result: a vast erosion of previous employment protection and equal pay gains for women.
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The new home “gig” economy will be used to drive up worker productivity and actually lengthen the working day – the ultimate insanity of capitalist hi-tech where nominally labour-saving devices are used to make people perform longer hours. There is already ample evidence that professionals work harder and longer at home, when asked to deliver individualised projects such as writing reports or articles for newspapers!
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The impact of this new rabbit-hutch economy on mental health is likely to be frightening.  The lockdown has already given us an inkling of what might happen.  A recent study conducted by City University found that 27% of people in the UK experienced clinically significant levels of psychological distress during April, compared with 19% cent before the pandemic.  Women and young people showed the worst symptoms.  The key problem is the isolation resulting from a prolonged stay isolated at home.
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Once again, the scientific and technological fruits of human ingenuity are leading to a capitalist nightmare.  The economic and social convulsions will be enormous. The morning rush hour is going to look strangely quiet, as will city centres. The inner city will die even if the air is cleaner. The only vehicles on the roads will be Amazon and Hermes delivery vans.  Doubtless we will be told how wonderful this “green” home-working regime actually is.  The reality is that we will be lab rats earning peanuts while the Mark Zuckerbergs of this new utopia sail about in their luxury boats.
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Of course, the rats might just revolt.  They have nothing to lose but their Zoom conferences.

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  1. Rolf says:

    This is the negative view of home working. It is dependent upon the individual’s circumstances and their employer but for many people there is an improved life/work balance. There’s no stressful daily commute. This will be additionally appreciated in the winter when the risk of a second wave increases. Reduced car journeys also means reduced emissions. Local high streets also get a boost as more people shop for lunch, coffee etc in their home neighbourhoods. Some positives surely?

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Home working is fine if you live in a nice house with plenty of room, including a room that you can set up as an office. Yes it cuts out the travel time and cost and is beneficial for the environment.

    Think of it from another perspective; many in this situation are call centre employees, often temporary, on minimum wage with little or no security. They frequently work for an intermediary company and can be employed or paid off at a moment’s notice. Many of those that will have no choice in the matter are living with parents or scraping by in a small rented flat which they hope to move on from. This is not something that those at the bottom will look forward to with pleasure.

    After I retired I did this sort of work for a few years, until my old age pension became payable, and saw the conditions at first hand. Let me assure you it is not nice at the bottom of the heap.

  3. The Over Extended Phenotype says:

    Good to see Bellacaledonia trying to gauge the cost and consequences of lockdown. Perhaps the above should be read alongside a recent paper by Chaudhry et al in the Journal ECinicalMedicine published by The Lancet which concluded that –
    ‘Government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns and a high rate of COVID 19 testing were not associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.

    1. John McLeod says:

      The study is:R. Chaudhry et al., A country level analysis measuring the impact of government actions, country preparedness and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 mortality and related health outcomes, EClinicalMedicine (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j. eclinm.2020.100464. It is open access – anyone can find it on Google. Apart from the the technicalities of the review methodology, it is informativr and not difficult to read.

      I am not sure what point you are trying to make. Are you arguing that the Chaudhry review found that government actions made no difference to covid outcomes? That is not the conclusion that I would take from this article. My sense was that they found that well-prepared and proative governments did much better. They also reported that obesity (an indicator of long-term failure in health education, food regulation, etc) contributed to poor outcomes.

      1. Tom Parkhill says:

        Having had a look at the paper, I would agree with Mr McLeod. The conclusion is quite explicit, “Interpretation. In this exploratory analysis, low levels of national preparedness, scale of testing and population characteristics were associated with increased national case load and overall mortality”. I think that The over-extended phenotype’s interpretation may be quite selective. For example on lockdowns, the paper states “This suggests that full lockdowns and early border closures may lessen the peak of transmission, and thus prevent health system overcapacity, which would facilitate increased recovery rates.” Again, I’m not sure what point it trying to be made in the comment.

        1. The Over Extended Phenotype says:

          The lockdown started as a means to protect the NHS from overload in the short term, but then morphed into a longer term project to suppress or ‘beat’ the virus. The big questions are – did it work? and was it worth it? George Kerevan has outlined some of the knock on effects above but we can also add :
          – increased poverty and hunger in developing countries
          – mass unemployment
          – soaring rates of mental health issues
          – increases in domestic violence, suicides and overdoses
          – difficulty for charities and NGOs delivering polio and tuberculosis vaccinations
          – important surgeries cancelled and problems for cancer patients accessing care
          The article I quoted above is technical and nuanced but nonetheless it says several times that the authors see no connection between lockdown and reduced mortality. The authors don’t offer an explanation for this, so how do we account for the fact that across Europe (including Sweden) a very consistent picture has emerged – despite lockdowns having loosened off or no longer being enforced, cases and mortalities continue to fall steadily?
          My feeling is that Government interventions are largely ineffective and have extremely damaging knock on effects. It is the human immune system (antibodies plus T-cell immunity from previous coronavirus exposure) that is doing all the heavy lifting in suppressing the virus.
          (see Prof Karl Friston, Prof Sunetra Gupta, Prof Karol Sikora and Dr. David L. Katz)

          1. John McLeod says:

            You wrote: “…….how do we account for the fact that across Europe (including Sweden) a very consistent picture has emerged – despite lockdowns having loosened off or no longer being enforced, cases and mortalities continue to fall steadily?”

            Surely a large part of this is due to the fact that the majority of the population continues to socially distance, wear masks, etc etc even when a lockdown starts to be lifted? I am not aware of research that shows that infection rates are falling because of acquired immunity. For example, there have been cases reported where individuals seem to have been reinfected at a later date, following apparent recovery from an earlier infection.

            The list of negative effects of lockdown that you have identified (unemployment, failure to treat other illnesses, food shortages and hunger, etc) are very real and need to be taken seriously. However, the costs of not taking collective action that involves isolation, would probably have been mass casualities on an out of control level. This is what has happened in other pandemics. The people who have studied previous pandemics (plagues, spanish flu 1918, etc) are the ones who have urged action along these lines.

  4. Michael says:

    Out of the people I know in Edinburgh who have had to move to working from home (rather than been furloughed) two have had to see their GPs for depression and anxiety for the first time! And another tells me that his house hold utility bills have risen significantly!

  5. MikeH says:

    The other hidden reason behind this move has been the long-planned transition to a cash-free (fully financially surveilled and controlled) society – it is no coincidence that G4S is sacking around 1000 cash handlers: “https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jul/13/g4s-planning-more-than-1000-job-losses-in-cash-handling-services” ostensibly due to reduced use of ATMs and cash payment not being readily available at supermarkets and other large shops during the pandemic (I still have exactly the same coins in my trouser pocket and notes in my wallet as I did more than 3 months ago).
    This has been happening under the radar with ATMs and branches already disappearing, and despite the argument that there are 2 million disadvantaged people dependent on cash, one can easily see a system of food stamps as in the US ,or prepaid cards as with immigrants or asylum seekers, replacing any need for cash at all. The taxman too will be very pleased to see the end of the black economy. Watch out for VAT as well as tax rates going up slowly over our post-Brexit future!

    1. John McLeod says:

      There are several groups looking at how to address the inequalty consequences of the move to a cashless society. This has been a focus of concern in Scandinavian countries, that are now largely cashless.

  6. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    No, the rats won’t revolt. Society and employment will change as we continue to transition from an industrial- to a knowledge-based economy.

    AI will liberate millions of people from meaningless work on the bureaucratic treadmill (‘jobs involving mid-level administrative and decision-making skills’). Workers’ unions will finally have to abandon their old industrial-cum-chapel models and organise themselves digitally as skills or knowledge syndicates, with all the democratic benefits and wider accessibility that such digital platforms will facilitate. Work will become more flexible, and workers will be able to devote more quality time to living their own lives instead of squandering it on commuting and during their rest periods.

    Workers will also no longer be disciplined by the collective workplace. No doubt society will find other ways of keeping folk in order out of mischief, but at least social discipline will no longer be administered through the penal institution of the factory.

    Work itself will become more individualised and productive (as George says, there is already ample evidence that professionals work harder and longer at home, when commissioned to deliver individualised projects); it could also become more cooperative, as workers use digital technology to organise themselves responsively into ad hoc syndicates in order to bid for larger multiskill projects. This is the way the gig economy is being taken by independent workers who have seized the means of production for themselves – a.k.a. ‘freelancers’.

    The world is changing, and we can either sit like the proverbial Dutch boy with our finger in the wall, hankering after the good old days when we all worked in collective solidarity down mines or in shipyards, or (post-industrially) in Council offices or call-centres, or we can get our fingers out and make sure that our emerging digital workplaces (quaintly referred to as ‘home-working’) are as free as they can be.

  7. Mark Bevis says:

    I think outcomes are variable.
    I’ve been working from home for a decade anyway, as an artist and writer, so the the change for me was the loss of some gardening work, which was made up by the increase in WTC. That gardening work has since returned from last week. Working with people you’d never socialise with in jobs that are tedious has always been bad for my health, so isolation wasn’t a problem for me.

    What I did find was that concentrating on work was harder as the unmitigated shambles of our overlords in the Westminster bubble revealed itself, and watching most people lapping it up as acceptable. The absolute rage at herd immunity, which is still the plan, but all it did was create herd stupidity. I’ve gotten over that bit now and concentration is back better than before. It was a bliss whilst there was little traffic on the roads, but that seems to have returned to normal. Meh.

    One of my friends who works in county council finances (yes, they do have some money left to push around on computer screens) had applied for home working 1 day a week before the crisis, so was thinking on those lines already. Thus the mental adjustment to home working turned out relatively straight forward, and his family seemed able to adjust. His latest review from his employer suggests that staff will be allowed to carry on home working unless they need to come into the offices, so they could get a very flexible outcome. Staff with differing needs could then presumably do a mix’n’match of home working and commuting as needed, which may well be the least worse of both worlds.

    Of course, this all assumes the internet remains functioning, and remains functioning continuously. When it starts to become intermittent, corporate controllers might not welcome their decisiont to send everyone home.

    At the corporate level, if so many workers do get sent home to work, won’t there be a bubble burst in investment portfolios of commercial properties? Which itself may be enough to crash the economy from it’s current recession to a-1929 beating depression.

    1. John McLeod says:

      Your point about the long-term viability and reliability of the internet is important. It is worrying that more attention is not being devoted to this, given the extent to which the functioning of basic social systems around food, health, transport etc depend on it. Yes, the internet is a distributed system that has a lot of redundancy built into its basic design. But at the end of the day it comprises wires in tubes that come together in big relay centres and require massive amounts of electricity. These material aspects of the internet are vulnerable to many predicted climate change events, such as fires, rising sea levels, and landslips, as well as to eco-terrorism and depleted workforce due to pandemic. It is not just total breakdown of the internet that is a problem – loss of facilities on a local or regional basis for periods of even two or three days would have major consequences.

  8. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    Come on George, a little bit of honesty wouldn’t go amiss. You know that for years the ‘Head Office Brass Plaque’ in Edinburgh has only been window dressing and all real operations are controlled from the ‘London Casino District’ AKA, The City of London!!!

  9. John McLeod says:

    George’s article seems a bit negative. He rightly points out some of the ways that capitalist business will inevitably seek to use the covid crisis to extract more profit from their workforces. These are challenges that need to be faced. On the other hand, it seems clear that working from home can make a major contribution to lowering pollution and carbon emissions, and can create possibilities around more flexible lifestyles. The report of higher stress/mental health problems in a survey carried out in April needs to be viewed in perspective – this was a period when many people were dealing with fear and loss, as well as learning how to adjust to home working. The issue of how to make the mega-rich 1% – and the companies. they run – pay their taxes exists whether or not people are working at home or in company offices. We live in a time that calls for imagination and a long-term perspective – it would be good to see more of these qualities being exhibited by the Scottish Government. [No hope at all of any such thing from a London government mentally and emotionally in thrall to the myth of empire].

  10. SleepingDog says:

    Maybe homeworking cuts out some styles of workplace bullying and harassment (and micromanagement)? And maybe that contributes somewhat to increased productivity?

    1. Wul says:

      I think that what happens is that because people are not “at work” they feel a need to constantly prove they are , in fact, “working”. This leads to producing more output per hour than normal. Plus ( as an ex-council employee) many hours sat in meetings listening to managers talking pish will no longer be happening.

      I know from experience that in an office there are numerous dead times during the day, spent chatting, making tea, walking to the print room, fixing IT problems etc. With these removed its no wonder productivity increases. In addition, people will tend to see any dead time as their own, rather than their employers leading to longer actual working hours for the same pay.

      I’d be interested to know if employers are going to compensate employees for all the extra electricity they are burning, heating costs, broadband usage, wear and tear on the fabric of their homes etc. These new home workers should be getting a “rent” payment from employers for the use of their home as a place of business. Then there is the issue of home insurance and change of use; is it still a domestic dwelling house if you are operating an office for 8 hours a day? Will BT et al be happy with you paying just £29.99/month for domestic broadband when you are now using their bandwith for business an extra 8 hours per day?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Wul, that seems generally plausible. I knew managers who liked to physically dominate meetings and resisted remote communication across geographically-spread campuses, insisting on travel instead.

        I was wondering if electronic business was typically much lighter than home domestic multimedia, but perhaps the vogue for video conferencing somewhat makes up the difference in bandwidth. There is ongoing work to squeeze more out of cables, and I just heard about a new video codec standard which apparently offers significantly greater compression. I think this is it:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versatile_Video_Coding
        although again some of the benefits may be lost in licensing inefficiencies. There are a few open-source codecs, although some of these appear to be used by patented formats, the layer above.

        Perhaps it will take time for work-at-home changes to evolve new norms. I remember those industrial researchers who claimed they found productivity gains occurred whenever they changed things at the factory, no matter what was changed (although replicating the Hawthorne Effect has apparently not been straightforward). Maybe there are as many facts and myths about home working. I remember when I first started home studying I wasn’t very good at setting a pace, and now am much better at it. Does that mean I have learnt unsupervised scheduling better, or are there a host of other factors at play? Both, probably.

        1. Wul says:

          I know when employees wanted to work from home that council managers were initially resistant and very cautious, allowing one heavily monitored home-working day per week for special cases. The prevailing attitude was that workers would skive as much as they could but that was never borne out in actuality.

          That’s interesting about the new compression codecs. Frankly I’m amazed at the amount of data that can be sent down the tiny wires in the BT cable into my home. Movies playing in HD in different rooms simultaneously.

          Getting rid of the commute could be a big positive for many. It is a horrible way to start the day. However, as a home worker myself, I suffer from isolation and having no peers to socialise with. It can get you down sometimes. Plus it makes your home a work place instead of a refuge.
          I have tried to advocate for small, rentable, fast connection office spaces in various building schemes and underused council buildings where I live but the powers that be ain’t interested. If, for example, a new housing estate were being built, a small unit with a few “office” spaces would give home workers the option of a “workplace” with communal cafe, printing and meeting spaces. Often all you need is a good broadband connection, a desk and some freedom from interruption. Or a few “office” units could be included in the “community leisure trust hubs” that councils love to turn our libraries and sports centres into (in order that they avoid paying VAT and rates).

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Wul, intriguing idea, the (bookable?) 24-hour privacy space built into to communal residential designs. I recently watched (after reading) JG Ballard’s nightmarish High-Rise. No real developmental space there (no teen-agers). For all the power(balladry) of Meatloaf, I think perhaps first love should be disentangled from the high-octane hijinks of dashboard lights. While I am sympathetic to adult claims of needing their own workspace, I wonder exactly the productivity of Bayleaf the Gardener who claimed to work from early dawn (his potting shed may have contained adult reading material and moderately-priced sherry).

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            I work in a virtual office, which I can take with me anywhere. Sometimes I work in the house, sometimes in the coffee shop, sometimes in the leisure centre. At the moment, seeing as it’s a nice morning, I’m sitting in the square, opposite the pub, where I can access the pub’s internet connection. There’s ay enough folk going about their own business in the town that I can have a wave or a blether, even under the distancing régime. I don’t find social isolation to be a real problem. In fact, I felt much more detached when I worked in the quarry all those years ago, incarcerated with my workmates in our own wee bubble of a workplace for gey near a third of our lives. No, this is much, much better. Even the bulk of quarry-work is automated nowadays, liberating all but a handful of machine-minders from having to work in such alienation.

  11. Papko says:

    I never know what to make of this chap Kerevan, it seems he will argue about anything.
    If Our FM deemed it necessary for as many people as possible to work from home, would that be a benign decision ?
    for when the RBS capitalists keep staff at home its some malevolent conspiracy.

    Does Scottish Independence mean a return to the 1970s with factories, smelters and ship yards everywhere, spewing out high quality consumer goods that somehow bucks the globalist trend. Meanwhile well paid highly skilled Scots , eschew online to go to their traditional high streets where all sorts of treats are purchased.
    The Tobacconist will be next to the busy pub and the bookmakers , and Scots will spend their cash (no contactless for us) and stagger home.

    That has gone the same way as the 16mm projector, the newspaper, the local cinema and the Bingo hall, and it shall not return .

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Yup!

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