Overview of change
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK was already seeing a slow growth in the number of employees working from home, with around 5% of the workforce reporting working mainly from home in 2019 and around 30% reporting that they had ever worked from home.1 This increased rapidly during the pandemic, with 46.6% of people in employment doing at least some work from home in April 2020.2 Working from home during periods of government-enforced lockdown shifted attitudes about how working can be configured differently.3–5 Over the longer-term, increased flexible working, including working from home, could increase some workers’ well-being and productivity. However, potential positive benefits from flexible working are not equally distributed throughout the population and could increase inequalities.6,7
Challenges and opportunities
Before the lockdown, homeworking was not ‘normal’ working practice for many workers. The prevalence of homeworking differed substantially between employees and the self-employed, with the self-employed accounting for almost two-thirds of homeworkers in the UK in 2014.4 The extent to which people can and did work from home also varied substantially by sector, occupation and region. In 2019, only around 10% of workers in the transportation and storage sectors, and accommodation and food services industry reported having ever worked from home, compared with around 50% of people in the information and communication, and professional and scientific sectors.1 Workers with higher skilled occupations were more likely to work from home than lower skilled workers.1 Working from home was more prevalent in London, the South East and the South West than the rest of the UK. Research conducted prior to the pandemic indicates that flexible working is positively associated with higher levels of job satisfaction, arising in part from greater autonomy and greater work-life balance or reduced work-life/family conflict.8–10 However, it can also lead to work intensification, social and professional isolation and is associated with perceived threats in professional advancement.8,11 The positive effects of homeworking level off the more time people spend working at home.8,12
During periods of lockdown, people have been expected to work from home where possible. Ability to work from home is highly dependent on whether a specific physical environment, tools or proximity to other people are required for the role. Information and communication technologies can enable working from home for some roles, providing workers have access to, and the skills required for technology.13 In April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home, with 86% of those who did some work at home doing so as a result of the pandemic.2 The proportion of employees that always worked from home reached levels of around 30% during April–June 2020, gradually declining to 21% in September 2020.5 Data collected during the pandemic suggest that overall, people have adapted quickly and worked well from home, that initial negative impacts on mental health have decreased over time, and that that productivity has not been adversely affected.12 However, there have been challenges, and parents, carers and those with people management responsibilities have put in more hours and struggled with the pressures of home schooling and collapsed home/work boundaries.5
Research suggests that latent demand for permanent flexible working arrangements, including working from home and hybrid office-home working, have been unlocked by the pandemic.5,12,14 Increased flexible working could increase some people’s job satisfaction and work-life balance and create more inclusive working environments for workers with certain types of disabilities.15,16 Combined with increases in the amount of time fathers have spent caring for their children during this period, it could help to accelerate changes in gender norms and be helpful for mothers’ careers.17 It may also reduce the dominance of London.7 Some countries have already started embracing the change to remote working by issuing visas that allow people to stay and work in their own countries.18 However, experts have expressed concern about health and safety, as well as data security and privacy in homeworking environments.19–21 Experts are also concerned about how the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have interacted with existing inequalities in employment and ability to work, including socio-economic status, education, age, gender, ethnicity and geography.6,7,22 For example, COVID-19 has increased the unequal burden of care carried by women, causing more women than men to leave the labour market during the pandemic.17,23,24 Younger workers living in shared accommodation and bedsits have been less able to access suitable workspaces.5 Long-term increases in working from home may have impacts on wages, the property market and on city centres.25,26 Transport ticketing options will need to respond to changes, and commuting costs could rise for some and fall for others.27–29
It is difficult to estimate the number of workers who will be in flexible employment in the future because there are many potential factors that can influence estimates. It is unclear how organisational culture and productivity will be impacted in the longer-term by increased working from home.26,30,31 The impact on health and well-being of the increase of technologies in the workplace and long-term working from home is not yet known and could have potential effects on healthcare systems. Positive benefits from increased flexible working will not be equally distributed throughout the population and could increase economic and social inequalities. More working from home may lead to a reduction in carbon emissions in summer, but an increase in winter.32
Key questions for Parliament
- How are organisations supporting managers and employees, and what practical job design and remote working training has been offered? What equipment and resources have been offered to employees to support safe working from home?
- What are the most effective ways to support workers’ health, safety and mental well-being when working from home or in a hybrid office-home arrangement?
- Following the pandemic, what flexible working arrangements do employees and employers want in the longer-term? How will this affect organisational culture and productivity? How can organisations ensure an inclusive hybrid working environment and parity of experiences for homeworkers and office workers in terms of development and promotion?
- What are the potential impacts for infrastructure (such as telecommunications and transport) of long-term increases in widespread working from home? What are the most effective ways to address data security and privacy concerns?
- What are the most effective strategies for preventing a widening of economic and social inequalities? What opportunities are there to narrow inequalities?
- How can governments promote investments in the physical and managerial capacity of firms and workers to work flexibly? How can governments address concerns for worker physical and mental health and well-being and inequality?
Likelihood and impact
Medium impact and high likelihood with some impacts being felt now but others over a 2–5 year timescale.