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Flexible working describes working arrangements that give people a degree of flexibility over where, when and how they work. Remote working refers to a type of flexible working based on location, where workers work at home or a location other than the traditional workspace where the employer is based. ‘Hybrid’ working refers to a combination of office-remote arrangements. Other flexible working models can be based on the number of hours and when these are worked, including flexitime and compressed hours.

The Commons Library briefing paper on Flexible working: Remote and hybrid work provides further detail on the current UK legislation and prospective reform, broad trends during the COVID-19 pandemic and relevant guidance. 

Trends

Data on remote and hybrid working show that:

  • Before the pandemic, remote and hybrid working had been increasing gradually. Between January and December 2019, around 1 in 10 (12%) of the of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week and around 1 in 20 (5%) reported working mainly from home.
  • This increased substantially during the pandemic, to a peak of around half of workers (49%) in Great Britain (GB) working at least one day from home in June 2020; 11% of the workforce worked at least one day from home and 38% worked from home exclusively.
  • As pandemic restrictions have been lifted, these numbers have gradually decreased again, but remain higher than pre-pandemic numbers. In September 2022, around 1 in 5 (22%) of the GB workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week and around 1 in 8 (13%) worked from home exclusively.

There is variation in the overall trends in flexible working particularly remote and hybrid working. This is seen across by sector, industry, occupation, role and qualifications, earnings, employment type, region, age, gender, ethnicity, disability and caring responsibilities. Many of these factors are interrelated. Both pre-pandemic and post-lockdown data suggest that:

  • Across all forms of flexible working arrangements, higher levels of flexibility are reported in the public sector compared to the private sector. However, there is variation across the public sector, with people in the public sector more likely to work flexible hours like flexitime or part-time. Public sector employees are less likely to work remotely compared to the private sector. Self-employed workers were more likely to work at home sometimes or always than employees before the pandemic and during the lockdowns.
  • There are significant differences between different industries. People working in information and communication, professional, technical, and administrative industries are more likely to work at home compared to those in skilled trades and service occupations. These differences have become more pronounced during the pandemic.
  • Managers and supervisors are more likely to work from home sometimes or always compared to non-managers and non-supervisors. People with higher qualifications are more likely to do some work remotely than people with no or lower qualifications. Both these trends have continued throughout the pandemic.
  • There is substantial variation in rates of remote and hybrid working across the four nations and across English regions, with rates before the pandemic highest in London, the South-East and South-West. During the pandemic, there was an increase in remote working across all regions; however, variation across regions remains substantive.
  • Rates vary by age group, with people aged 35-54 more likely to work from home sometimes compared to other age groups. However, during the pandemic the number of young people (16-34) working a hybrid pattern more than doubled, the greatest increase across ages.

Evidence suggests that a majority of workers have a would like to carry out hybrid working in the future, with survey data from 2021 and 2022 estimating that more than 80% of employees who worked from home because of the pandemic prefer a hybrid working model. Survey data suggest that organisations preferences for hybrid working are more mixed, with between a quarter to around two-thirds of employers in 2021 reporting that they intend to introduce or expand hybrid working to some degree.

Impacts

It is difficult to assess specific impacts from remote and hybrid working. This is because pre-pandemic studies are based on contexts where the employee has requested remote working, whereas in the pandemic it has been enforced and pandemic specific studies cannot establish longer-term outcomes. Available evidence shows mixed findings on impacts.

Impacts on workers

Research indicates that workers perceive both benefits and disadvantages to flexible working. Benefits of remote and hybrid working for staff can include increased wellbeing, self-reported productivity and work satisfaction, reduced work-life conflict, new ways to collaborate and more inclusive ways of working through the use of technology. Challenges can include increased work intensity, longer working hours, distractions, health issues, decreased social interactions, less promotion and learning opportunities and an inability to disconnect from work.

Available research suggests that: 

  • remote and hybrid working can have both positive and negative impacts on workers’ health and wellbeing. ONS data show that in February 2022, almost half of those who worked from home in some capacity reported that it improved well-being (47%). Positive and negative health impacts vary by socio-demographic characteristics as well as individual factors, such as an employee’s work satisfaction and personal circumstances. During the pandemic, enforced home working has been among the most common causes of workplace stress; however, it is difficult to attribute findings on health and wellbeing from data collected during the pandemic to remote and hybrid working, because of the wider impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and wellbeing;
  • remote and hybrid working can have both positive and negative impacts on work-life balance. ONS data show that in February 2022 more than three-quarters (78%) of those who worked from home in some capacity said that being able to work from home gave them an improved work-life balance. However, remote and hybrid working can lead to blurring of work-life boundaries and a feeling of pressure to always be available online, as well as an increase in unpaid overtime work hours. Use of information and communication technologies to engage in work-related tasks outside of work time can make it difficult for workers to ‘switch off’;
  • in self-reported surveys, around two-thirds or more of employees working at home say they got as much or more done as pre-pandemic in the workplace. There is variation in worker self-reported productivity, with younger workers reporting feeling less productive and disabled workers reporting feeling more productive; and
  • before the COVID-19 pandemic, people who worked mainly remotely were less likely to be promoted and to have access to training opportunities. There are limited data to suggest whether this trend has continued throughout the pandemic, and it may change if a larger proportion of people work at home more frequently. Research from before and during the lockdowns indicates that there is ‘flexibility stigma’ – a biased attitude – towards remote workers, though there are some indications that the COVID-19 lockdowns have reduced this stigma.

Impacts on organisations

Research indicates that organisations perceive both benefits and disadvantages to flexible working. Benefits of remote and hybrid working for organisations can include increased staff wellbeing, reduced overhead costs, productivity gains, reduced sickness absence levels and more efficient allocation of labour. Challenges can include reduced mental wellbeing of staff, difficulties in staff interaction, collaboration, engagement and connection, negative impacts on working culture and productivity losses. Available research suggests that:

  • businesses cite improved staff wellbeing as the key reason for them to increase homeworking in the future. However, employers also cite reduced mental wellbeing of staff due to isolation as a key challenge. Other challenges can include difficulties in collaborating with others on work and staff feeling more disconnected from their work organisations. Many organisations consider that some in-person time will help to address challenges. Although it is difficult to replicate in-person interaction, more innovative use of technologies could also improve negative impacts;
  • there are limited data on the impacts of remote and hybrid working on productivity. Findings from self-reported surveys of employers suggest that around a third to half of employers consider that there has been no change in productivity since the rise in remote and hybrid working due to the pandemic. Of those who consider that there has been a change, more consider that there has been a decrease in productivity than an increase. The levels of productivity reported by employers also varies between industries, with the greatest increase in accommodation and food service activities and the greatest decrease in manufacturing;
  • senior leaders and human resources teams are key to setting the organisational behaviours and culture to enable and support flexible working. Line manager behaviour and decision making are pivotal in increasing or limiting access to flexible working and line manager support for remote working is considered particularly important by disabled workers. However, line manager capability to manage homeworkers and monitor staff performance are cited as key challenges by employers and line managers may need more training to manage teams remotely; and
  • remote working may allow the current labour pool to expand as it makes jobs accessible to a higher number of people, irrespective of where they live. This could reduce the level of skill mismatch in the economy as workers are better able to match their skills to new openings in the labour market. However, evidence on the impact of remote working on recruitment is limited and younger people are less likely to see working at home as a benefit. More managers are supportive of including flexible working arrangements in future job advertisements than before the pandemic.

Wider impacts

Experts suggest that supporting remote and hybrid working in the longer term will require supporting more inclusive approaches to remote working, more training and support to workers on cybersecurity and increasing access to digital technologies and infrastructure as well as improving digital skills. Other potential wider impacts, but with less available evidence, include those on energy and the environment. Increased remote and hybrid working could improve air quality, reduce plastic pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it could also increase energy consumption and electronic waste.

Acknowledgements

This POSTbrief was based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and was externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Dr Pascale Aebischer, University of Exeter

Dr Holly Birkett, University of Birmingham*

Georgia Crossland, Royal Holloway, University of London

Julieta Cuneo, Centre for Cities

Dr Matt Davis, University of Leeds

Claire Deller-Rust, Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development*

Amy Ertan, Royal Holloway, University of London*

Dr Alan Felstead, Cardiff University*

Dr Rebecca Florisson, Lancaster University, Work Foundation*

Dr Sarah Forbes, University of Birmingham*

Anthony Halewood, Health and Safety Executive

Dr Sam Hampton, University of Oxford*

Dr Paula Holland, Lancaster University*

Dr Abigail Marks, Newcastle University

Dr Piotr Marzec, Understanding Society, University of Essex*

Claire McCartney, Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development*

Office for National Statistics*

Dr Jane Parry, University of Southampton*

Dr Raj Patel, Understanding Society, University of Essex

Paul Swinney, Centre for Cities

Matthew Wootton, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy*

Dr Dan Wheatley, University of Birmingham

Dr Krystal Wilkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University*

Dr Efpraxia Zamani, University of Sheffield

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing


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