The Prime Minister recently withdrew the guidance to work from home in England. But that doesn’t mean working from home will disappear.
Nearly two years on from the enforced transition to homeworking in the UK in March 2020, it has become a normal part of many people’s lives.
In surveys, both employees and employers say that they expect more homeworking to be a permanent feature of the UK economy – albeit at lower levels than seen during the pandemic.
The caricature of working from home is that it’s only available to people in professional jobs on higher incomes – and that they are the only ones who benefit from homeworking. But this ignores the millions of low-paid workers who worked from home during the pandemic, and are continuing to work from home in the ‘new normal’.
At the cross-party think tank Demos, we wanted to explore the experiences of low-paid homeworkers. So in the autumn of 2021, we ran two surveys of 2,000 people each – one specifically of people working from home, and another of all workers across Britain. We also ran five focus groups with low-paid homeworkers – those earning under £20,000 per year.
The experience of low-paid homeworkers
For the first time, our research [Inside Jobs: The experience of low-paid homeworkers in Britain today] shows that low-paid homeworkers benefit from homeworking just as much as those on higher incomes.
Low-paid homeworkers are just as likely to say homeworking is good for aspects of their lives such as work flexibility, productivity, and relationships with their family. In our focus groups, many people told us they enjoyed working from home and that it improved their work-life balance, allowing them to save time commuting, reduce their day-to-day stress, or spend more time with their children.
For those who have experienced it, homeworking is very popular – in our survey, almost everyone working from home (94%) said they wanted to continue doing so at least some of the time in the future, and exactly the same proportion (94%) of low-paid homeworkers said the same. In both cases the majority of people would like to work in a hybrid pattern, spending some time working remotely and some time in person.
But while the benefits of homeworking are shared across the income spectrum, access to homeworking is unequal. We found that half of British workers (53%) were doing at least some work from home, but this varied between different income brackets. While a third (37%) of people earning less than £20,000 reported doing some work from home, it was an overwhelming three quarters (73%) of those earning more than £50,000.
Of course, one third of low-paid workers is still a significant proportion – and disproves the narrative that only workers with high incomes are able to work from home. Nevertheless, there is a significant access gap between those with low incomes and those with high incomes. The main reasons for this relate to the sectors and occupations in which lower earners work. In our poll, job unsuitability was the most commonly cited reason for these workers not being able to work from home.
There are several ways to move toward widening access to the benefits of homeworking:
1. Helping low-paid workers better benefit from homeworking
First, our research didn’t explore in depth the sectors and occupations of low-paid workers. Further research should be conducted to explore the sectors and occupations in which low-paid workers are employed, which of these currently offer homeworking, and which could offer homeworking in the future.
2. Flexible employment by default
Second, the government should make employee contracts flexible by default, including the location of work. Some employers will of course need employees to be present in person, but making contracts flexible by default will encourage more employers to consider whether they can introduce some remote working into employees’ working arrangements.
3. Digital inclusion is crucial
Third, digital skills and digital inclusion have become even more important in the new world of work. Improving digital skills will be vital, enabling people to be confident and productive while working from home. Employers could consider paying for courses to improve people’s confidence with new digital systems. Digital inclusion is also crucial – for example, ensuring low-paid workers have access to a decent internet connection and the right equipment to be able to work remotely.
4. An opportunity to upskill
Fourth, although not suitable for everyone, some low-paid workers may want to change jobs or sectors in order to access work which can be done remotely, at least some of the time. There is an opportunity here for skills and training providers to help people progress in work or change sectors, so that they can benefit from homeworking.
We have seen an enormous shift to increased hybrid and fully remote working over the last two years, and overall it has been one positive aspect of our pandemic experience. Going forward, we should aim to ensure that as many people as possible can access the benefits of these changes to our working lives – including low-paid workers.