Home-based workers of the world unite! - RSA

Home-based workers of the world unite!


  • Picture of Dr Frances Holliss
    Dr Frances Holliss
  • Economics and Finance
  • Enterprise

The world is changing beyond recognition, in response to new information technologies, more women in employment than ever before, corporate devolution of risk and structural unemployment. It is becoming clear that the needs and rights of significant new classes of workers are not being respected - and not just in relationship to the employment rights of the so-called ‘gig’ workers.

Census statistics convey a clear message: the home-based workforce is growing, rapidly. ONS figures show that more than four million people now work mainly at or from home in the UK, some 14% of the working population, the highest rate since comparable records began in 1988. Millions more are home-based for part of the week. Emerging research suggests that over 95% of UK businesses are in fact microbusinesses that employ fewer than ten people and account for a staggering third of all employment and a fifth of turnover. Most are, or have been at some point, run from their owners’ homes.

This proliferating, and largely invisible and ignored, sector could do with support - it needs to be taken seriously, to be celebrated and championed. Common visions of a booming economy place little emphasis on the five million micro-businesses that exist across the UK, trucking and trading in a wide range of different occupations, from hairdressing to curtain-making, child-minding to social policy research, or product design to tech start-up. A few convert into big business. Will Chu started Deliveroo in his London flat just three years ago. It now operates in 84 cities across the world, with 13,000 employees, more than 20,000 couriers and revenue estimated to hit £130m this year. But we should not forget the vast, ordinary, majority - that Iain Scott of CanDoPlaces calls the Accidental Entrepreneurs - that provide a resilient base to the economy.

While industrial capitalism depended on a spatial separation between dwelling and workplace, emergent modes of production seem to be bringing them back together. But a rigid web of adverse rules and regulations - developed as a result of deeply embedded ways of thinking and silos of government - stifles this sector. Social and economic policies are needed that overturn the century-long, hard-wired, separation of home and work.

We also need to change the way we design our buildings and our cities. Hammond’s Autumn Statement pledge of nearly 4bn to housing is to be welcomed. But it also presents a major problem - because there is currently no debate about what housing ‘is’. The unspoken agreement is that it is a place where we cook, eat, bathe, sleep, bring up our children and watch TV, nothing more. Which leaves a large proportion of the rapidly growing home-based workforce struggling to squeeze work into home or home into workplace.

For many owner-occupiers, work is accommodated through under-occupation - in a little-used dining room, a spare bedroom, a disused garage or a shed at the bottom of the garden. But this option is often not available for renters and apartment-dwellers, especially those with children. The poor, in particular, are just ‘housed’ and expected to be grateful for it. But most contemporary housing continues to be designed to models developed at the end of the nineteenth century (when there was widespread - largely ideological - opposition to home-based work) to prevent this working practice, and managed through tenancy agreements that penalise, or even prohibit it. This leads to frustration, stress and inefficiency, and contributes to unemployment running at twice the national rate in social housing. This is an issue of equality and rights as much as anything else.

It does not need be like this. We used to be skilled at designing buildings that combine dwelling and workplace (‘workhomes’) - from weavers’ houses to fire stations that included accommodation for fire fighters and their families. But dwellings today are primarily designed as commodities for exchange, rather than to meet the social and spatial needs of contemporary lifestyles. Although we now understand a great deal about how to design for home-based work, governance issues- including planning, property taxation and tenancy agreements/ leases – prevent this knowledge being effectively applied in the UK. As a part of the debate raging about employment rights for ‘gig’ workers, there is a need to assert the rights and freedoms of all home-based workers to decent spaces in which to live and work. 

Frances Holliss is an architect, Emeritus Reader in Architecture at London Metropolitan University, and author of ‘Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work’ (Routledge 2015). 

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