From education to employment

Work from Home Day: homeworking has tripled since before the pandemic

birds eye view of woman sat at desk with laptop

Today (Friday) is the 17th annual Work from Home Day, organised by Work Wise UK as part of Work Wise Week – a week of activity to promote employment practices that improve work-life balance.

Regular homeworking by UK workers has tripled since before the pandemic, rising from 6.8% in 2019, and 12.1% in 2020, to 22.4% in 2021.

Growth in homeworking and future trends

The TUC says that the 2021 figures suggest a significant permanent increase in homeworking is occurring. However, caution is needed around the long-term scale of the increase.

Many workplaces and workers are still trialling new arrangements for homeworking and hybrid working and negotiating long-term policies with staff. And despite a consultation last year, the government has still not set out concrete plans for new flexible working rights.

But while the degree of the long-term increase may still be uncertain, evidence in support of changes to working practices also comes from what employers and working people are saying.

91% of those who worked from home during the pandemic told a TUC poll (published in June 2021) they want to continue working remotely at least some of the time.

And a survey by the Office for National Statistics shows that 24% of businesses intend to use increased homeworking as a permanent business model going forward, while 28% were not sure.

The TUC also cautions against assumptions that everyone who wants to work from home is now able to.

Despite successful homeworking during the pandemic, trade unions say that some of their members are now being denied homeworking requests without their employer giving them a genuinely good reason for the refusal. And some workers have also received negative treatment from their employer as a result of working flexibly.

Comparing homeworking rates for different groups of workers

The 2021 data shows similar rates of homeworking for men compared to women, for BME workers compared to white workers, and for disabled workers compared to non-disabled workers, showing the high demand from different types of workers.

However, while rates of homeworking may be similar, it should not be assumed that the experiences of homeworking are equal.

For example, women workers are currently more likely to have to juggle childcare with homeworking. And homeworking or other forms of flexibility are no replacement for a good- quality affordable childcare system. But done in the right way, positive flexibility can help towards equalising care between parents.

Employers must provide homeworking staff with the equipment and support needed to do their jobs, including reasonable adjustments for disabled workers.

They should also recognise that some people’s personal circumstances mean that homeworking is not suitable for them. And nobody should be forced to homework if they do not want to, or as a cost-cutting measure for employers wanting to reduce their estate regardless of impacts on their workforce.

Homeworking and hybrid working policies should also take account of the time working people are entitled to for union meetings and support from union reps. Employers must find ways to help facilitate union rights under different models of flexible working.

Comparing homeworking for different locations and employment sectors

There is significant variation in homeworking rates across the UK’s nations and regions. This ranges from London (29.7%), the South East (25.5%) and Scotland (22.4%) at the top, down to Northern Ireland (11.7%), North East (16.1%) and the East Midlands (19.2%) at the bottom.

There is also significant variation across different employment sectors. This ranges from communication (58.9%), finance (46.5%), professional, technical, and scientific (43.2%) to accommodation and food services (3.2%), retail (9.2%) and transport (9.5%).

The TUC says that regional differences largely relate to the nature of work and concentration of certain sectors in different parts of the country including higher-paid occupations in London and the South East.

Fair access to flexible working for all

While homeworking has increased since the pandemic, other types of flexible working have been left behind.

The TUC’s analysis shows that it is only homeworking that has increased substantially. For other types of flexible working, there has been little change.

 2019 Q42021 Q4
Mainly work from home6.8%22.4%
Annualised Hours7.8%6.2%
Term-time working5.3%4.8%
Job Sharing0.5%0.4%
Compressed hours: 9-day fortnight0.4%0.5%
Compressed hours: 4.5 day week0.7%0.7%

TUC research published in June 2021 found that people in higher-paid occupations were much more likely to have worked from home during the pandemic (60%) than those in working-class jobs (23%).

The union body says that if that by delaying new rights to flexible working, the government is excluding people in working-class jobs from accessing the benefits of flexibility.

The June 2021 research found that four out of five (82%) of workers want to take up some form of flexible working. And almost two-thirds (64%) of workers want some form of flexibility in their working hours.

The TUC says that to prevent class and geographic inequality, the government must urgently act on its promise to improve flexible working rights across the board. In response to the recent flexible working consultation, ministers should set out plans and a legislative timetable to:

  • Unlock the flexibility in all jobs. There is a flexible option that will work for every type of job. There are a range of hours-based and location-based flexibilities to choose from. Employers should be required to think upfront about the flexible working options that are available in a role, publish these in all job adverts and give successful applicants a day one right to take it up. 
  • Make flexible working a genuine legal right from the first day in a job. People should be allowed to work flexibly from day one – unless the employer can properly justify why this is not possible. Workers should have the right to appeal any rejections. And there should be no limit on how many times you can ask for flexible working arrangements in a year.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“Everyone should have access to flexible working. But while homeworking has grown, people in jobs that can’t be done from home have been left behind. They deserve access to flexible working too. And they need new rights to options like flexitime, predictable shifts, and job shares.

“Homeworkers also need better legal protection. It’s great that some employers are much more supportive now, but many others are still behind the times, turning down homeworking requests without good reason.

“The government promised to modernise employment law to make flexible working options the norm for every job. But Boris Johnson has cancelled plans for an employment bill this year. And it is mostly people in working-class jobs who are left out. That’s not fair – ministers must step up and do what they promised.”

Sector Response

Work Wise UK Chief Executive Phil Flaxton said:

“Following the global pandemic, the landscape of how, when and where we work has changed dramatically and many employees will continue to balance work between their place of work and home, known as hybrid working.

“However, it is vital that the UK does not become a nation of those can and those who cannot work flexibly. National Work from Home Day provides an opportunity for employers to start conversations with their staff on new ways of working. Working people need a say on what works for them – and what doesn’t.

“These new approaches cannot be a ‘one size fits all’. Employers, trade unions and the government must work together to ensure that those who cannot work remotely are not excluded from modern flexible working practices.”

Laura Ryan, International Director of HR, Dropbox:

“This National Working from Home Day, we want to celebrate the benefits that our Virtual First model has provided for our employees. From a day-to-day perspective, we’ve enabled flexible working for all employees. This allows everyone to structure their diaries based on their own preferred work patterns, whether they’re early birds, night owls – or parents who wish to schedule work around picking up their children from school. To support this, we introduced “Core Collaboration Hours” – for all our employees globally, which are four-hour windows reserved for live meetings and collaborative working.

“We also utilise our own screen recording tool, Dropbox Capture (that enables users to get their message across with screenshots, GIFs or simple videos recorded on their screens), which has become essential to cutting back on meetings and emails. By working this way, our people have autonomy to design their day in a way that best suits each person’s needs, which enables us to work smarter as a company, reducing burnout in the long run.”

Related Articles