Since England’s work from home guidance was withdrawn last week, media coverage and government statements have focused on familiar themes – the working patterns of civil servants, the impact on retail and hospitality, or the number of people travelling on public transport.
Largely missing, however, have been the perspectives and experiences of the millions of workers who adapted to working from home during the pandemic. At Demos, we’ve conducted research to find out more about people’s experiences of working from home, through polling and focus groups.
First, we found that working from home is extremely widespread. In our poll of workers in September 2021, we found over half were working from home at least some of the time, and a fifth were working from home all the time. Homeworkers are a large and diverse group – and contrary to the popular stereotype, they aren’t just high earners and civil servants.
As well as being widespread, working from home is popular. Almost all current homeworkers (94%) said they would like to continue working from home at least some of the time in the future. This suggests that increased homeworking is here to stay, and is likely to become a permanent feature of the UK economy.
People report significant benefits from homeworking. These self-reported benefits include flexibility, productivity, better relationships with family, better health, balancing work and caring responsibilities, and reduced time commuting. And in the report ‘Distanced Revolution’, analysis by Demos revealed that working from home during the pandemic was positively linked with better eating habits and reduced stress.
Working from home offers benefits to everyone, including low-paid workers. In the report ‘Inside Jobs’, the focus was specifically on the experiences of low-paid homeworkers (earning less than £20,000 per year). We found that they were just as likely to benefit from homeworking as higher-paid workers. Participants in our focus groups told us how homeworking had helped them balance work and caring responsibilities, or improved their mental health. As with homeworkers in general, almost all low-paid homeworkers (94%) said they wanted to work from home at least some of the time in the future.
We found that a third of low-paid workers were doing at least some work from home – so there are in fact a large number of low-paid homeworkers across Britain. However, the proportion is much higher among other income groups – three quarters of those earning over £50,000 per year reported doing at least some work from home.
This is not to idealise homeworking – people also experience challenges. In our poll, a quarter of homeworkers said that ‘feeling lonely’ was sometimes a struggle for them when working from home. Participants in our focus groups frequently mentioned the frustration of unreliable or slow internet connections. And for low-paid homeworkers, increased costs were a real concern. This is particularly true for energy bills, since working from home increases electricity and gas use. With energy bills set to rise significantly in April, this could have a negative impact on low-paid homeworkers.
But what does all this mean for the future?
Our research has shown that many people want to continue working from home. Other studies have shown that businesses also expect more homeworking in the future. Increased homeworking relative to pre-pandemic levels is, therefore, here to stay.
Our research showed that some kind of hybrid working pattern in the future is the preference of the majority. In our focus groups, people explained that they thought this could deliver the benefits of working from home some days, with the social and collaborative benefits of working in-person on other days. This way of working of course presents challenges – for example, there may be uneven patterns of demand for office space or public transport if more people want to work from home on Friday than on Wednesday. But as we adapt to hybrid patterns, we’ll find ways to overcome these problems.
An interesting question for the future is whether we will see a meaningful distinction open up between ‘remote working’ and ‘homeworking’. During the pandemic, it was important that people worked physically at home to reduce social contact. But in the future, it is possible that ‘remote working hubs’ or ‘co-working spaces’ will become increasingly popular, potentially offering some of the advantages of working both locally and with others in a shared space.
The Government and the media are right to consider the wider impacts of increased homeworking. It will certainly have an impact on demand for transport, retail and hospitality – resulting in reduced demand in some areas and increased demand in others. This is why it’s possible that increased homeworking could contribute to the Government’s levelling up agenda. Some people may be able to live further away from city centres due to working remotely – and that could be positive for suburban areas or towns which can benefit from remote workers’ spending power. However, further research is needed to test this hypothesis.
Of course, working from home is not available to everyone – some people’s jobs can’t be done from home. Nor is working from home necessarily the best option for everyone – some people may benefit from other types of flexible work, such as flexible hours or job sharing.
But in light of what homeworkers told us, it’s clear that the Government and businesses should aim to maintain remote working as an option and expand access where this is possible. One thing ministers could do is make employee contracts flexible by default, so that people can access the benefits of homeworking, unless it is not possible in that particular sector or job.
It’s also important to address some of the challenges of homeworking, particularly for low-paid workers. Additional costs are key, especially energy bills in the current context. Businesses also have a crucial role to play – for example, providing the equipment people need to work from home comfortably and safely.
We have seen an enormous shift to hybrid and remote working over the last two years, and overall it’s been one of the few positive aspects of our pandemic experience. As we enter this next phase of readjustment, it’s time for the narrative to change. Rather than expecting everyone to return to the office, the Government, businesses and the media should recognise that working from home is here to stay – and it can benefit everyone, including low-paid workers.
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