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Using data in the flexible work debate



Have you been woke-ing from home during the pandemic?

This is how Tory MP and former minister Jake Berry described civil servants who were continuing to work productively and effectively from home last year. The attacks on home working have continued with renewed ferocity lately, with the Daily Mail describing civil servants as ‘The Blob’ and standing outside Whitehall offices to count how many people are going in and out (who knew that “get back to the office” meant loitering outside someone else’s?).

It is not only ministers who have been taking a hard line against working from home. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has dismissed remote working as “an aberration” that he predicts will disappear post-pandemic, while KPMG has told auditors that it expects them in the office at least four days a week.

But are these employers simply trying to hold back the tide? Not only have many employers found that remote working offers them cost savings and productivity gains, but remote working has, on the whole, proved popular with employees. McKinsey research has found that 25% of workers who have worked from home during the pandemic would consider moving employers if they were required to attend the office full time. The world has changed and employers who want to attract talent might find themselves at a severe disadvantage if they don't embrace hybrid working. As Julia Hobsbawm, author of The Nowhere Office has said, “there is a workplace revolution happening. The old simplicity of the hierarchy, the structure, the skyscraper, the office, that’s gone completely, and any leader who thinks it’s coming back is mistaken.”

All of this raises questions for unions about how we should respond to these changes and debates.

I’m reminded of an incident over a decade ago when I was working for an Australian union and home-working was first introduced as an option for staff at an employer where we had recognition but were struggling to recruit members. The immediate response of a senior regional official was “why the hell would we want people to have home-working? It’s hard enough to recruit people in an office!”. It hadn’t occurred to him that the fact we were instinctively opposed to working arrangements that were popular with many staff, especially those with caring responsibilities, might help explain why we had trouble recruiting members.

Of course, the worry about how we engage members and potential members is a legitimate one and no doubt there are huge challenges ahead. But we can only succeed by meeting members where they are, not where we would prefer them to be. A strategy based around what makes our lives easier is doomed to fail.

Like most unions, the FDA had to pivot quickly during the lockdown, shifting our branch meetings, casework, learning offer and annual conference online. We were fortunate that our members were working almost exclusively online too and we were actually able to increase our membership, rep activity and engagement. The next stage of moving to become a hybrid union will be more challenging and no doubt there will be a lot of missteps and lessons learned as we try to navigate our way through, but we have no choice but to make a success of it.

Data will be crucial to making this shift. We may not always have access to members in the same way in the future, but we have an amount of data available for mapping that would have made an organiser’s head spin even twenty years ago. We can chart where members and potential members are, how they’ve engaged with the union, what their concerns are and much more in a way that was simply unavailable before. We can also analyse and organise around that data to be more effective and targeted than ever before.

This is a historic opportunity to reset and change ideas about how we work and to push for a fundamental shift in favour of improving our members' lives. And it’s not just office workers who could benefit, we should use the flexible working moment to start a discussion of how digital tools and alternative work patterns can bring more autonomy and better work/life balance for operational staff too. For example, the Institute for Employment Studies has recently looked at how employers in the hospitality and construction sectors can offer more flexibility in shift lengths and working hours.

The trade union movement has been at its strongest and most efficient when pushing for change, and at its weakest when trying to resist it. Our greatest wins have come from the fight for a better future and our biggest defeats from trying to defend an outdated present. In our experience, having the facts at hand and using them to achieve our goals is helping us to determine what that future should be and how we can build momentum in tune with the times.

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