I’ve always had a keen interest in the future of work and how technology may one day alter our working lives as we know it. The coronavirus pandemic has lent fresh impetus to the work from home movement, but I can’t help but notice that the articles focusing on “the future of the office” are remarkably silent on the impact this will have on our family lives.
With many of us now working from home, or “living at work”, the lines between our professional and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred. According to the Office for National statistics, almost half of British workers (49%) have reported working from home in June 2020.
The “Englishman’s home” is now no longer his castle, but is also his office. As employers increasingly encroach into our private spheres, I wonder what are the implications for the modern family? What will the future of work entail for family life as we know it? And what impact, if any, might this have on our laws?
The personal impact of working from home on family life
From anecdotal and personal experience, it’s safe to say that our new approach to work is having an impact on our personal lives. Whether it’s loved ones butting in on your zoom time, loudly flushing the toilet or singing when you’re on that important work call (I’ve clearly still not let that one go) or just the general pressure of being cooped up together for unnatural periods of time/ lack of other human beings in your life slowly driving you insane; you have to admit that family life has undergone quite the upheaval, and the “new normal” takes some getting used to.
In this article I will focus on some of the key changes that lockdown living can have on our personal relationships with a particular focus on how to get the balance right between work and spending quality times with our loved ones. I will also look at some of the key legal implications that squashing our entire lives into our homes may pose, as well as providing some top tips to reduce conflict during these strange times.
Issue 1: Is Agile working as flexible as it claims to be? Or is work /life balance a thing of the past?
The manifesto for agile working used to read something like this: if modern technology can enable you to work anywhere -you can cut out the commute/work at the hours that suit you and get back more precious time to spend with those you love or on the things you love. Sounds great, right?
However, many people have been finding that working remotely has led them to actually increase the hours that they work, in a bid to prove that they can still be productive from home/ in fear of taking the usual tea-breaks they’d take at the office in case their boss might infer that they’re skiving because they missed a call.
According to the Working families 2020 Index, for many working parents technology has jeapordised the work-life balance. Almost half (47%) of the people they surveyed agreed that technology has blurred the boundary between work and home. Similarly, 48% agreed that being able to work from home has probably increased the hours they work.
The report illustrates how this can have a detrimental impact on family life, as who tend to work extra hours were more than twice as likely to think about work issues whilst they are with their family regularly, or all the time (41%), compared to 20% of people who stay within their contracted hours.
This can become a source of tension within the family with parents/partners who stay in “work mode” reporting that work has a negative impact on their relationships with their partners and children. Fifty-four percent said work led to arguments with their children and 57% said it led to arguments with their partner, compared to parents better able to ‘switch off’ (7% and 9% respectively).
Now the purpose of writing about this is not to induce “death by statistics”, nor to bash working from home. I am an avid supporter of tech and flexible working. My intention is merely to highlight the dangers that “not switching off” may pose, not only to your own well-being but to that of your families and to look at the legal impact these changes might have. I will also cover some top-tips for keeping your relationships happy below.
Issue 2: Uptick in break-ups and divorce rates
It follows that as work-issues begin to place strain on familial relations, and the pressure of lockdown living more generally weighs heavily on family life, we are beginning to see an up-tick in break-ups, cancelled marriages (where their postponement due to Covid-19 led them to second guess their engagement) and you guessed it – divorce rates.
Law firms have reported a 40% rise in divorce enquiries, as couples are spending more time together and more time working from home. In fact, the impact of lock-down measures on couples was such that some members of Parliament opposed the recent introduction of the no-fault divorce act, for fear that it could lead to a spike in divorce applications due to the pressure Covid-19 measures were placing on families.
Financial strains, such as people experiencing redundancy, experiencing pay-cuts or being dismissed may also take a toll on relationships. Paradoxically, it may mean more people are trapped in unhappy marriages as they consider the cost of getting divorced or thought of splitting the assets to be too prohibitive.
There will also be certain financial implications of people working from home on divorce as our homes increasingly become intertwined with our working lives and we see the rise of more home-offices.
Issue 3: A rise in unplanned cohabitation and the prevalence of the “common law marriage” myth
There’s plenty of articles out there on the “common law marriage” myth and quite frankly, that topic cannot be covered in any real depth here because it warrants an entire article dedicated to itself (and rest assured that one is brewing in my idea pipeline).
In short, what you need to know is that living together as a single couple doesn’t give you the same rights of protections that you would enjoy should you decide to tie the knot. As cohabiting couples (both with and without children) are not recognised in law in the same way as those who are married or in a civil partnership.
Although some limited legal protections can arise for cohabitating couples; it is much better to communicate at the outset about your respective financial contributions to the property and whether or not their is an intention to share the property in future.
You should also consider taking legal advice on a cohabitation agreement, which is a legal document that aims to set out a cohabiting couple’s financial relationship and provide clarity and a degree of certainty , with a view to avoiding disputes later.
Issue 4: the impact on working parents, caregivers and in particular women
Whilst working from home may lend a certain degree of flexibility to working parents and care-givers, some are struggling to balance their care responsibilities with their workloads. 61% of the parents and carers surveyed by the Working Families index said family life had become more stressful or much more stressful during lockdown, with limited access to child-care being one of the issues cited.
And the research suggests that women are still overwhelmingly shouldering the “double shift” of paid work and childcare/domestic work. A number of women I personally know have had to ask to be furloughed because of their caring responsibilities/school closures.
However there is a glimmer of hope as a third of parents surveyed by the working families index now share childcare, It is also especialling encouraging is that this has been supported by their employers, and that they report it has been an easy arrangement to maintain in practice.
Obviously not all parents will choose an equal caring agreement but it is vital that those who do are supported in doing so and it is hoped that remote working will facilitate this in future.
It is also interesting that even though 61% of parents surveyed found lockdown living more stressful, parents who were not working flexibly before the lockdown overwhelmingly want their employer to retain remote and /or flexible working after the lockdown is eased.
However it is clear from the research that parents value autonomy on this issue, and they do not want to see a shift to working entirely from home, but would prefer to be able to pick and choose when and how often they can do so.
Issue 5: Maintaining Confidentiality and keeping your work separate from your family
We’ve all seen charming examples of kids or partners walking into the background (and becoming the star of) an all-important work or news conference. But what if that call was a confidential briefing or a forum where certain trade secrets were discussed?
It is important to remember that just because you trust your partner, it doesn’t mean that your confidentiality obligations to your employer (or indeed employees) will cease.
You may find that you need to have a conversation with your partner/children and ensure that they understand not to enter your designated work-station when you are having confidential calls/ you have means of safeguarding and storing any confidential information securely.
Practical considerations; Top tips for adjusting to the “new normal”
So now that we’ve examined some of the problems that working from home can pose to family life, here are some top tips to help you and your family adjust.
*If you have any queries on any of the issues raised above, please do not hesitate to seek specialist legal advice*
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