Professor Alan Felstead – Written Evidence (LOL0034)
This written response is based on research projects carried out before the outbreak of Covid-19. It also draws on analyses of large datasets – such as the Covid-19 Study – carried out during and after the three-month UK national lockdown earlier this year.
This research has the following five major findings:
- The proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 6% immediately before the UK national lockdown to 43% in April 2020. Even though it had fallen slightly by June 2020, it remained high (37%) and continues to be around that level.
- However, the growth in homeworking has not been evenly spread. The largest surges were recorded among the most privileged segments of the labour market – the better educated, the higher skilled and the higher paid.
- Two-fifths (or 40%) of those surveyed said they were able to get as much work done while working at home in June 2020 compared to six months earlier and around 30% said that they got more done.
- However, increased productivity carries a cost. Research suggests that homeworkers find it harder to unwind at the end of the work day and more often reported worrying about work. The sudden switch to homeworking therefore took a toll on the mental health of those involved. Although this effect weakened as the workers became accustomed to homeworking and/or those who found it difficult returned to their traditional places of work.
- Nine out of ten employees who worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue to do so and around one in two employees want to work at home often or all of the time. Furthermore, employees who felt more productive while working at home in lockdown were among the keenest to work at home when social distancing rules no longer apply. This suggests that it makes good business sense to allow those who want to work at home the opportunity to do so even when the pandemic has past.
Who will be disadvantaged by any long-term trend towards home working? How will it affect people without adequate broadband or people who lack an appropriate workspace at home?
The three-month UK national lockdown ushered in what has been called ‘the great homeworking experiment’ as there was a sudden and dramatic shift in the location of work. To arrest the spread of the virus, policy makers across the world promoted working at home as a way of minimising social contact. Almost overnight many workers converted their bedrooms into offices, their living room tables into desks and their kitchens into places of work.
- However, even before the pandemic, homeworking was on a gradual, albeit slow, upward trajectory. While it was relatively rare in 1981 when only 1.5% of those in employment in the UK reported working mainly at home, by 2019 it had risen to 4.7%.
- That said, it had taken almost 40 years to rise by a mere three percentage points. The UK lockdown turbo-charged this shift. Survey evidence suggests that the proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 5.7% immediately before the UK lockdown to 42.5% in April 2020.
- Even though working at home had fallen by the end of the lockdown, it remained high by historical standards (36.5%). The latest estimates for the last week in November 2020 suggest that this proportion has remained high with 39% of working adults in Britain reporting that they had worked at home during the last seven days because of Covid-19.
Despite the large surge in homeworking prompted by the need to socially distance, the surge has not been uniformly felt by all workers.
- After all, some jobs such as lorry drivers, firefighters, paramedics and cleaners simply cannot be done at home. Even those jobs which can be done at home need a good and stable internet connection since, in the words of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), ‘technology is a big facilitator of homeworking’. Data on the growing importance of computers at work and their ubiquity in the home support these claims. For example, in 2017 a computer was regarded as an essential tool to do half of all jobs (51%) compared to three out of ten jobs (30%) in 1997. Internet access in UK households has expanded even faster – rising from around 9% in 1998 to 96% in 2020. However, in 2019 7.5% of adults in the UK had never used the internet. This was higher among women than men and was particularly high among those defined as disabled according to the Equality Act, where 18.2% said that they had never used the internet. Internet use also varies geographically, reaching double figures in East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire (12.2%), the Highlands and Islands (11.2%), and West Wales and the Valleys (10.5%). Broadband speeds also vary geographically.
- The recent growth in homeworking has not been evenly spread. The largest surges were recorded among the most privileged segments of the labour market – the better educated, the higher skilled and the higher paid. The proportion of graduates reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 8.0% before lockdown to 59.2% during lockdown. On the other hand, the growth in homeworking among those with no qualifications was more muted despite starting from a relatively low base. It rose by just five percentage points during lockdown with the vast majority (84.0%) of lowly qualified workers working outside the home.
- Similarly, while homeworking grew across all occupational groups during lockdown, it grew particularly rapidly among the higher skilled occupational groups. For example, during lockdown a majority of those working as managers, professionals, associate professionals (e.g., computer assistants, buyers and estate agents), and administrative and secretarial staff (e.g., personal assistants, office clerks and bookkeepers) reported that they did all of their work at home. This was up from between 5-9% before lockdown. However, workers operating in lower skilled occupations continued to use the factory or office as their workplace both before and during the lockdown. For example, more than four out of five operatives and elementary workers (e.g., machine operators, assemblers and labourers) reported that none of their work was carried out at home in lockdown.
- The pay profile of homeworkers also changed with the net annual pay of workers who did all of their work at home rising from around £20,000 before the lockdown to around £27,250 during lockdown. On the other hand, the pay of those who worked at home less frequently fell, while those who worked outside of the home barely changed. This suggests the shift towards full scale homeworking was strongest among the higher paid.
- Certain industries and regions also saw dramatic rises in the prevalence of homeworking. For example, during lockdown approaching two-thirds of those working in banking and finance (63.0%), over a half of those based in London (54.3%) and approaching a half of those based in the South East (45.5%) reported that they were fully working at home during lockdown. These proportions were up from around 7% before the lockdown.
- Nevertheless, the recent growth of homeworking has been fairly evenly spread among workers with different personal demographic profiles. For example, the growth in the proportions exclusively working at home rose at a similar rate among black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) workers as it did among others. The same goes for disability and gender. The only exception is age where the growth of homeworking was more pronounced among younger workers.
Will a reliance on digital interactions and home-working impact on informal interactions and exchanges of information and, in turn, impact on innovation and creativity?
- Before the lockdown, the spread of homeworking was held back by fears among employers that working at home would weaken productivity. These fears were based on concerns that employees would not be able to learn from one another, form effective teams and their effort levels might dip when out of sight. However, survey evidence collected in the UK lockdown does not support these fears. Two-fifths (40.9%) of homeworkers reported that they were able to get as much work done in June 2020 as they were six months earlier. Over a quarter (28.9%) said that they got more done, while 30.2% said that their productivity had fallen.
- The effect that the UK lockdown had on productivity varied according to the extent that people worked at home. Those who worked exclusively at home in June 2020 were most likely to report themselves as more productive rather than less. On the other hand, those working at home less frequently reported a significant downward shift in their productivity.
- However, those who reported higher domestic commitments – such as doing housework and carrying out home schooling – reported that their productivity was significantly lower. This is in line with border theory which suggests that the invasion of home commitments is pronounced when work is carried out at home. This was particularly pronounced in the UK national lockdown when schools were closed. During this time, parents were expected to care for their children, liaise with schools and even home school their children.
- On the other hand, longer working hours was positively associated with increased productivity. This provides further empirical support for theories which suggest that homeworking may lead to over-working as workers go the extra mile to prove that they are working effectively, out of obligation to their employer or in order to get noticed.
- According to the Covid-19 Study, nine out of ten (88.2%) employees who worked at home during the lockdown reported in June 2020 that they would like to continue working at home in some capacity, with around one in two employees (47.3%) wanting to work at home often or all of the time. Putting data on future homeworking preferences together with self-assessed evaluations of the effect of homeworking on productivity suggests that the upsurge in interest in homeworking is unlikely to be detrimental to productivity but may, in fact, boost it. Two-thirds (65.5%) of employees who reported that they were able to produce much more per hour while working at home in lockdown wanted to work at home often or all of the time in the future. In comparison, just 6.4% of those who said that their productivity was much higher when they worked at home did not want to do so in the future. This ‘selection effect’ is likely to be advantageous to employers keen to bounce-back strongly from the impact of Covid-19.
- Employers now seem to view homeworking as an effective way of working which is not detrimental to business performance. This is reflected in business surveys which suggest that employers intend to continue to allow homeworking when the pandemic has past. Furthermore, increased productivity is cited as one of the reasons for the continuation of homeworking in the future by a third (33.7%) of employers who took part in recent ONS business survey. On the other hand, only 5.0% of employers cited reduced productivity as a reason for not making increased use of homeworking in the future.
How will any long-term increase in working from home affect both social and economic wellbeing? How will it affect individuals and how will it affect communities and wider society? What do we know about how working from home can affect our physical and mental health, and what do employers and Government need to do to protect workers?
- However, increased productivity may come at a cost. For example, according to research carried out before the pandemic, remote workers found it more difficult to reconcile home and work life. They found it harder to unwind at the end of the work day and more often reported worrying about work. Around a third (36.0%) of conventionally sited workers kept worrying about job problems at least some of the time even when they were not working, but among remote workers the proportion was eight percentage points higher.
- As a result, remote workers are more prone to work longer hours than their office-based counterparts. For example, 39.0% of remote workers said that it was ‘very true’ that ‘I often have to work extra time, over and above the formal hours of my job, to get through the work or to help out’ compared to 24.1% of those in conventional workplaces.
- The descriptive statistics suggest that the sudden switch to homeworking has taken its toll on the mental health of those who worked at home in the three months of lockdown, especially among those who always or often worked at home. For example, over 30% of those working always or often at home in June 2020 – the third month of lockdown in the UK – reported that they were able to concentrate less or much less than usual compared to less than 20% of those who reported that they had not worked at home at all. Similarly, those who worked mainly at home – always or often – reported greater difficulties in enjoying normal day-to-day activities and more often felt constantly being under strain and unhappy with life. Furthermore, multivariate analysis shows that those who were exclusively working at home during the first two months of lockdown had significantly lower levels of mental health overall than those who did not work at home at all. However, by the third month the fall was not as steep and not statistically significant from other workers. This may be because those working at home became more accustomed to working in this way and/or those who found it difficult to do so had voted with their feet and moved back to the office.
If more people continue to work from home in the long-term, what will the impact of reduced commuter numbers be on the environment and on the provision of public transport? How would businesses based in town and city centres be affected? And what consequential impacts might this have on our wellbeing?
- One of the most visible impact of homeworking has been the negative effect it has had on the high street. During the UK national lockdown, this was frequently illustrated with photographs of deserted city centres and empty high streets with bars, restaurants and shops boarded up. Even when lockdown restrictions were eased and hospitality and retail were permitted to re-open, footfall has not bounced back to pre-lockdown levels. Many workers continue to refrain from commuting into high density offices. These are often based in centre centres and are designed to promote high levels of social, physical and visual contact.
- However, even before Covid-19 the landscape of retail was changing with shoppers making more of their purchases online and some major high street stores going out of business altogether. But the three-month UK lockdown coupled with the growth of homeworking has seen high street year-on-year footfall cut by half, and by between a quarter and a third in the months which have followed.
- With a strong appetite for homeworking among workers and mounting evidence of its beneficial efforts for employers, it is unlikely that office workers will flock back to high density office blocks in large numbers. This change to the nature of work will have a lasting impact on the character of towns and city centres across the UK which have relied on retail shoppers for weekend trading and on office workers for their Monday to Friday sales.
9 December 2020
 The lockdown findings are based on analysis of three online surveys carried out towards the end of April, May and June 2020. These are part of the Understanding Society Covid-19 Study. For each survey, a representative sample of 6,000-7,000 workers provided information on where they worked either side of the lockdown. The June respondents also reported on how their productivity had changed and whether they would like to continue working at home in a post-Covid-19 world.
 Felstead, A and Reuschke, D (2020) ‘Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown’, WISERD Report, Cardiff: Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, pp4-8 and Figure 10.
 Data taken from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata/current
 Boys, J (2020) Working from Home: What’s Driving the Rise in Remote Working?, London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, p5.
 ONS (2020) Internet Access – Households and Individuals, Great Britain: 2020, Newport: Office for National Statistics.
 https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/itandinternetindustry/datasets/internetusers, Tables 1b and 5b.
 Felstead, A and Reuschke, D (2020) ‘Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown’, WISERD Report, Cardiff: Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, pp16-19.
 ibid, pp16-19.
 IoD (2020) ‘Home-working here to stay, new IoD figures suggest’, Press Release, 5 October 2020.
 ONS (2020) Coronavirus and the Economic Impacts on the UK: 8 October, Newport: Office for National Statistics.
 Felstead, A and Henseke, G (2017) ‘Assessing the growth of remote working and its consequences for effort, well-being and work-life balance’, New Technology, Work and Employment, 32(3): 195-212.
 Felstead, A and Reuschke, D (2020) ‘Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown’, WISERD Report, Cardiff: Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, pp14-16.
 Felstead, A, Jewson, N and Walters, S (2005) Changing Places of Work, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1097669/retail-monthly-footfall-year-on-year-high-streets-united-kingdom-uk/; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8880281/Coronavirus-UK-Footfall-UKs-High-Streets-drops-3-week.html