Legislation must catch up with ‘huge shift in nature of work’

House of Parliament
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The government needs to produce new employment legislation, policy and practice to accommodate the ‘hybrid reality of today’s workplace,’ according to a House of Lords inquiry.

The Lords’ Covid-19 Committee report, Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World stated that our growing reliance on digital technology is causing significant changes in the nature of our relationship with our employers. It added that the growth of platform working, digital monitoring and “epresenteeism” posed a significant risk for people’s wellbeing in work.

To deal with changes to our working conditions, and the relationship between employee and employer, the Lords stated “the government must intervene to introduce new employment policies and regulation. We do not believe we can rely on existing legislation, even if more forcibly implemented, or on individual legal initiatives such as the Uber court case.”

The government should consult on strengthening the current legislative framework for employment rights, to ensure it is suitable for the digital age, the Lords stated. This would include consideration of a “right to switch-off”, responsibilities for meeting the costs of remote working, rights for platform workers, the use of workplace monitoring and surveillance, and giving workers a right to access data about their performance.

The wide-ranging study heard from experts from myriad fields and looked at digital inequality, how ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected, the threat to jobs of automation, the lack of internet accessibility for many parts of the country, the impact of rapidly increasing digitisation in health and education, the effect of the regulation of gig economy work, staff monitoring and homeworking resources.

It heard from experts who argued strongly that the hybrid strategy must also acknowledge and emphasise the importance of face-to-face services and interactions. As Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, told the Lords: “All our research points to the fact that nothing replaces face-to-face interactions… nothing on earth ever replaces face-to-face. If you do not meet up from time to time face-to-face, nothing in the digital world will stop that relationship eventually becoming an acquaintanceship.”

Concern around work-life balance amid increased remote working was a common theme among witnesses at the Lords hearings, with the British Psychological Society stating that work-life balance could be threatened when it is difficult to maintain physical and psychological boundaries between work and personal life. Carnegie UK Trust also emphasised that for those working remotely, working almost exclusively via digital platforms during the pandemic, it has brought new strains and expectations, isolation from co-workers and an often unhealthy blurring of boundaries between home and work.

The hearings identified a lack of research on specific issues. The Lords said “there was insufficient evidence about the experiences of women, and that there was a striking gap in research on the experiences of Black and Asian communities”.

These communities, the report said, had been “disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and we cannot allow people to be further marginalised because policies and interventions designed to prepare for the hybrid world have not been developed to meet their needs”.

All our research points to the fact that nothing replaces face-to-face interactions… nothing on earth ever replaces face-to-face” – Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University

Automation and artificial intelligence trends were also part of the mix the inquiry considered. One expert, Dr Stephen Cave, from the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, said new risks had emerged stemming from the use of the latest technologies. He said: “The new and emerging digital technologies are creating new forms of dependency on the internet, even specific applications like Google, or on infrastructure like the cell phone network. There is one thing in particular that I want to highlight … which is the way in which AI and related technologies might exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. As we use AI to automate processes in the healthcare system, the energy grid and other critical systems, we might be making those systems more complex, more opaque and difficult to oversee.”

He added it was worth considering “undesirable outcomes, like the collapse of critical infrastructure, civil unrest or failure of the democratic process, become more likely because of the development of technologies like AI and the transformations it will bring”.

The hearings’ report concluded that: “The hybrid strategy must ensure that underpinning the relationship between offline and online services must be an acknowledgement of our minimum rights – as patients, students, workers and individuals – to have a real say in whether online or offline is most suitable. The hybrid strategy must also be underpinned by a commitment to tackle those barriers to digital access, digital skills and digital confidence that will otherwise leave parts of our society behind.”

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