Professor Graeme Roy, PrOPEL Hub Director, explores the long term impact of homeworking on productivity and considers the implications for job quality.

The shift to homeworking

One of the features of the COVID crisis has been the shift to homeworking for millions of workers across the UK.

In a recent article, PrOPEL investigator Professor Alan Felstead (with his colleague Darja Reuschke from Southampton University) wrote about the shift to homeworking across the UK. Homeworking rose from 6% before the pandemic to 45% in the first month of lockdown. Despite the easing in restrictions for some sectors over the summer, homeworking remains the new norm for many of us.

What might happen to homeworking once we are through the pandemic? Of course, many – and likely most – of us will return to our offices and return to our old ways of working in some way or another. But for many, the experience of homeworking is something that is here to stay in some form. Indeed, the same study by Felstead and Reuschke found that many employees are keen to see homeworking remain a feature of their work-life going forward.

Of course, this raises all manner of questions from employee wellbeing through to the future of city and town centres with large scale commercial property footprints.

What does it mean for productivity?

It is arguably the impact upon productivity that is of most interest to businesses and policymakers. In the UK, we’ve been facing a productivity puzzle in recent years – that is, our national productivity has slipped back in comparison both to historical trends and relative to our key competitors.

So how might productivity be impacted by a shift to homeworking?

There are a number of channels through which productivity may be enhanced through a shift to homeworking.

It might lead to improvements in work-life balance and wellbeing, helping to boost individual and collective productivity. It may also reduce the amount of time ‘wasted’ commuting to work each day, thus freeing up time for more productive work.

It may also enable firms to cast the net wider for potential job applicants, thus helping to tackle skills shortages (as well as diversity issues by opening up job opportunities for people with caring responsibilities and more limited time for commuting).

It could also help to tackle some of the negative impacts on productivity which badly designed workplaces can have. Effort may rise – both in terms of working harder/longer and more effectively – if there are fewer distractions etc.

But there may be negative implications for productivity too.

Employee wellbeing may not necessarily improve, particularly if people find that the division between their home and work life is blurred.

It may be more difficult to monitor staff effort or to provide feedback.

Any reduction in social interaction might reduce team working, joint problem solving and inform network support for staff.

It’s also been widely noted that firms can derive benefits from clustering together. These benefits include improved access to resources, for example improved availability of skilled workers, a larger local market, but also knowledge spill-overs. At a macro level these are referred to as agglomeration effects. One worry is that these ‘gains’ might be diluted if more people are working from home.

How might job quality be impacted?

One aspect that will be crucial for whether or not a shift to homeworking – even on a partial basis – will lead to improvements in productivity is the potential implications for job quality.

Many of us would see our workplace, and our working conditions, as fundamental to our job quality.

And there is growing evidence of the link between agile and high performing businesses and high quality, inclusive and engaging work. A recent report by the Carnegie Trust looks at the evidence and case studies of the link between job quality and productivity.

Key aspects include employee engagement (and most importantly feedback mechanisms), opportunities to support workplace innovation, effective job design/framing and peer interaction and support. All of these issues are likely to be turned on their head by homeworking.

It is therefore vital that business owners and HR professionals consider how job quality is being impacted by a shift to homeworking, and crucially whether or not greater homeworking can be used to improve job quality.

If we do, then one silver-lining from the current pandemic could be a greater focus upon wellbeing and productivity across the UK economy as we seek to ‘build back better’.