For more than four months, the UK government has encouraged all workers to work at home if they can.  This advice has been widely followed and homeworking has rocketed as a result – rising from 6% before the pandemic to 45% in the first month of lockdown.  This advice was relaxed on 1 August 2020 with homeworking only one of the ways in which employers can make workplaces Covid-19 secure.  The hope is that workers will return to the offices, factories and shops they vacated several months ago, and thereby boosting the flagging hospitality and retail sectors which are reliant on office workers for business.

However, analysis carried out by Alan Felstead (Cardiff University and PrOPEL) and Darja Reuschke (University of Southampton) suggests that reversing the growth of homeworking will be difficult for two reasons.  First, many employees do not want to return to the office and would prefer to work at home.  Secondly, many employers have found homeworking to be a viable way to operate with little detrimental effect on productivity.  In fact, the survey data suggest that homeworking in the future is likely to boost rather than reduce productivity; 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 new evidence comes from the Understanding Society Covid-19 Study.  This is a monthly survey which has been carried out three times – in April, May and June 2020.  It is part of the UK Household Longitudinal Study, a large representative sample survey of the adult population.  Felstead and Reuschke’s new findings are based on the June 2020 survey and the responses given by around 5,500 employees who worked at least one hour a week and provided information on where they worked either side of the lockdown.  Respondents were asked to complete an online survey which was carried out between 25 June to 1 July and referred to respondents’ activities in the previous month, hence coinciding with the third month of the UK-wide lockdown.

  • The Covid-19 Study asked all those who were working at home in June 2020: ‘Once social distancing measures are relaxed and workplaces go back to normal, how often would you like to work from home?’  The results suggest that nine out of ten (88%) of employees who have worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue working at home in some capacity with around one in two employees (47%) wanting to work at home often or all of the time (see Figure 1). This suggests that a key characteristic of the new normal will be much higher levels of homeworking than in the past.

Source: University of Essex, Institute for Social and Economic Research. (2020). Understanding Society: COVID-19 Study, 2020. [data collection]. 3rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 8644, 10.5255/UKDA‐SN‐8644‐3.

  • Furthermore, employees with little previous experience of homeworking have not been put off by the experience of working at home – half (50%) of new homeworkers would like to work at home often or always even when Covid-19 restrictions permit a return to ‘normal’ working.  This compares with 80% of employees who were mainly working at home before the pandemic (in January/February 2020) and want to remain as homeworkers in the future.
  • A common fear among employers is that without physical oversight employees will shirk and productivity will fall.  To examine this proposition, the June 2020 wave of the Covid-19 Study asked those who were working at home how their productivity had changed.  Two-fifths (41%) reported that they were able to get as much work done in June 2020 as they were six months earlier.  Over a quarter (29%) said that they got more done, while 30% said that their productivity had fallen.  On the whole, then, homeworking in the lockdown does not appear to have had a significant effect on productivity.
  • However, the impact on productivity varies according to the frequency that employees used the home as their place of work.  Those using the home sometimes or often reported a downward shift in their productivity, whereas employees who did all of their paid work at home reported an increase in productivity (see Figure 2).

Source: University of Essex, Institute for Social and Economic Research. (2020). Understanding Society: COVID-19 Study, 2020. [data collection]. 3rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 8644, 10.5255/UKDA‐SN‐8644‐3.

  • 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.  Two-thirds (66%) of employees who reported that they were able to produce much more per hour while working at home in lockdown wanted to work mainly at home in the future. In comparison, just 6% of employees who did not want to work at home in the future said that their productivity was much higher when they were working at home during lockdown.
  • On this basis, allowing employees to work at home, if they want to, may increase not reduce productivity, hence supporting the business case for the continuation of homeworking.  However, this will not address some of the other economic consequences of the rise in homeworking, such as the hollowing out of city centres which are reliant on office workers spending money in local shops, cafés, restaurants and bars.  This new evidence suggests that a massive return to pre-Covid-19 patterns of working is unlikely to happen. Many employees have got used to, and have experienced the benefits of, working at home.  In addition, productivity has not been adversely affected by the shift towards homeworking.   Furthermore, if those who want to continue working at home in the future are allowed to do so, productivity may be boosted by a sustained increase in the prevalence of homeworking.