This week one of my friends started working from home, forced to do so as a response to the Covid-19 measures here in the UK. It took him a few days to get a room in his home set up like an office and to make the connections required to ensure he could continue to be in touch with his work colleagues. But much to his surprise he has found it a positive experience. As he says “It’s not perfect yet, and we’re having to make a few adjustments as we learn, but it will certainly make me reflect on how I, and we, work going forward”.
Across the UK this experience is being repeated many times. The shift to homeworking is a new experience.
The latest (2017) detailed statistics from the Labour Force Survey suggests that less than 5% of the working population routinely uses their home for working. And even if this extended to include using the home as a base for work the proportion is only 13%. In 2019 a CIPD report* suggested that those working from home, which may involve a worker being based at/from home on a permanent basis or working from home on a more occasional basis, was used by almost a third of employees.
This study also suggested that for many employers homeworking was a response to the need to offer flexible working conditions for employees, rather than a conscious and planned way to do business. Their survey suggested that fewer than 40% of employees had the option to work from home.
So can we expect a dramatic rise in homeworking in future as a result of the unprecedented shift to this form of employment over this temporary period?
A number of factors are likely to point towards an increase.
First, like my friend, the experience of being forced to adopt the unfamiliar notion of homeworking proves to be positive, offering new opportunities to achieve better work/life balances for example. Having ‘sampled’ it there is likely to be a rise in some adoption of homeworking, even if alongside working from other locations. A new familiarity with new online connectivity tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams is likely to encourage people to consider some forms of homeworking in future.
Second, many employers have had to invest (very quickly!) in providing the infrastructure to allow employees to work at home – not least the provision of laptops and other communication tools to allow connectivity between managed and employees and within teams. Having made this investment, there will be pressure to utilise this in future, so the provision of at least some form of homeworking is probable even when a return to ‘normal’ conditions is allowed.
And third, the vacating of office space has the potential to reinforce a key driver of the growth of homeworking, the downsizing and reconfiguration of the workplace. The experience of homeworking might well be viewed more positively than the choice of hot-desking or desk-sharing that many have adopted as real estate is re-designed.
On the other hand, the current shifts are also likely to illuminate some of the limitations to homeworking, with the temporary nature of the shift unlikely to accelerate the development of new technology to overcome these. In particular, a lack of trust can be the biggest barrier to achieving successful homeworking (ACAS, 2019) and whilst there may be a shared sense of responsibility to cope with work in the current unusual circumstances, building trust will take time in more normal conditions. Further the enforced rapid shift to homeworking is also likely to highlight issues over supervision, management and responsibility for employers; issues which will require further and more detailed consideration if homeworking is to continue in the longer term.
As my friend hinted in his assessment of the current position, a significant growth in permanent homeworking is unlikely because of the Covid-19 situation, but many more employees and employers will at least know it CAN work periodically and flexibly and can be a resilient response to future crisis!
*CIPD (2019) UK Working Lives (https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/uk-working-lives-2019-v1_tcm18-58585.pdf )