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Are We at Risk Of Sofa Slavery?


I recently featured on TalkRADIO with Mark Dolan, where the concept of ‘sofa slavery’ was floated – whereby staff working from home quickly find themselves working long hours, taking on additional duties and having no boundaries in terms of employment and employment rights as they find their work-life balance increasingly difficult to manage as the lack of separate workplace blurs lines.

Indeed with the world experiencing its first pandemic in modern times and many countries around the world entering a lockdown that enforced working from home for many who wouldn’t otherwise do so, work has become ‘something you do’ rather than ‘somewhere you go’ for office-based staff all over the world.


A sudden work-from-home order with little to no choice for most has certainly changed the working landscape. Whilst campaigning for flexible and agile working is nothing new, this immediate across-the-board change will undoubtedly have long-term mental health impacts for many. In some ways, this proves what campaigners have long said – ridding offices of a culture of presentee-ism that no longer rewards those who stay the longest, no matter their performance or actual contribution, and instead empowering and entrusting employees to work through their tasks with full ownership and responsibility.


However, there too are negatives to working from home – particularly for those whereby the home is not an ideal workplace. Those with families may find it difficult to concentrate (especially with a lack of available childcare), those without families may suffer from a lack of human connection, and those without a dedicated office space can find themselves without a suitable or comfortable place to sit and work. All over the world, we’re seeing sofas, kitchen tables and dressing spaces become ad-hoc workplaces.


We’ve all seen accusations of big brands fostering modern slavery practices recently, but are we too heading toward such cases with a workforce adopting remote working rather than sitting in an office premises? Any staff member working from home currently will be able to attest to inadvertently working longer hours and finding themselves picking up work when they’re not contracted to.


This said, such ‘sofa slavery’ can be avoided if remote workers are managed properly and boundaries set as they would be in any other employment contract. The direct human connection of water-cooler chat may be gone, but keeping mindful of the human aspect of staff should remain a priority. Monitor performance as well as hours, and don’t be afraid to step in if you find team members working later or longer than expected. Set boundaries for deadlines and working hours, and if you need to, hold off on sending e-mails until within set working hours. Keep time in schedules at least weekly for a ‘check-in and chat’ that addresses personal emotions and wellbeing as well as work, and maintain awareness of responsibility allocation and task-lists.


We know that staff working remotely are able to perform, but now it’s time to ensure they can do so safely. Quality over quantity… and never the other way around!


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