Employees who work exclusively or in part at home may be referred to by many different names, including ‘homeworkers’, ‘agile workers’, ‘hybrid workers’, ‘remote workers’, ‘offsite workers’, ‘teleworkers’’ or ‘telecommuters.’ The variety of possible working arrangements is even broader. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United Kingdom in March 2020, little attention was paid to the employment law issues involved in homeworking. That all changed with the first national lockdown, when the Government instructed all employees to work from home if it was possible to do so and required employers to take all reasonable steps to facilitate this.
Offices across the country emptied and the workforce effectively divided into three groups: those who worked at home; those who were furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme; and those who carried on attending a workplace. Although it became widespread overnight, homeworking didn’t quite reach the level of being the standard experience: according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), at the peak in April 2020, 47% of people in employment did ‘some’ work at home. Nonetheless, that accounts for roughly 16 million workers, which is more than enough to put issues relating to homeworking front and centre in the minds of many employers.
Working from home where possible largely remained official government guidance in England until 19 July 2021. With most coronavirus-related public health restrictions having been lifted on that date, ‘Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread’ (available at www.gov.uk/coronavirus) now sets out the Government’s expectation and recommendation of a gradual return to the workplace over the summer. Although the guidance and restrictions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland differ, a gradual return to workplaces is expected in these three countries also. Despite this new guidance, the number of homeworkers and hybrid workers across the UK is likely to remain higher than it was pre-pandemic as employers reconsider their operating models, many having discovered that remote working is more feasible than previously believed.
Benefits and drawbacks
Throughout the stop-start process of preparing for a return to office-based work, there have been many opportunities to reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of homeworking. The most obvious benefit for employers is reduced costs. Office space and related overheads are significant items of expenditure. If, for
example, an employer introduces a hybrid working model under which employees only need desks for two days a week,
and the employer can arrange it so that in-office days are evenly distributed across the week, the savings are potentially substantial. Other benefits that employers might take into account are:
- increased productivity. Employees working from home are spared travel time and associated stresses, and there is some evidence (see below) that the time gained leads to an increase in output
- better motivation. Many workers respond well to working from home
- skills retention. Workers who might otherwise be lost as a result of family relocation, new family responsibilities, or temporary or permanent disability, may stay if offered homeworking arrangements
- recruitment. Employers that allow homeworking will have access to a wider geographical talent pool. They may be able to avoid paying higher salaries to recruit in locations with a high cost of living. The ability to work from home is also likely to be seen as a benefit by potential candidates
- team flexibility. Geography and travel time are less of an impediment and virtual teams of workers can be assembled more easily than physical ones
- technological competency. Homeworkers are more likely to have increased IT and technology skills to enable them to work effectively from home
- resilience. Organisations geared to homeworking and hybrid working may be better able to withstand external disruptions such as transport problems, adverse weather conditions and even terrorist threats. Indeed, established homeworking can form an important part of disaster management planning.
However, there are also reasons why an organisation might be reluctant to embrace homeworking. Employers might be concerned about the potential loss of control, and damage to team working and culture; some may fear that workers will not ‘pull their weight’ when not under supervision; and there may be a reduction in face-to-face collaboration between colleagues and teams. Different management styles may be required to oversee homeworkers, and managers may not be able to support work or workers to the same degree. A dispersed workforce may mean fewer on-the-job training opportunities for junior or less experienced workers, and a loss of mentors. The organisation may become overly dependent on technology, and there may be significant duplication of equipment. Finally, there is a greater risk of breaches of confidentiality and data protection rules.
From an employee’s point of view, the ability to work from home some or all of the time was generally regarded as a ‘perk’ pre-pandemic. Requests to work from home are often made by workers who believe that they will find it easier to manage their work and personal commitments, or those with long commutes. What appears as an advantage may, however, not always prove to be one in practice. Living space can quickly become cramped by home office equipment. Some homeworkers find it more difficult to keep work and home life separate, not always knowing when to stop.
A 2020 ONS survey showed that those who worked from home to any degree worked more hours (32.3 on average per week) than those who never worked from home (27.7). The survey also showed that workers who did any work from home had a lower sickness absence rate of 0.9% (equivalent to 2.0 days lost per worker) compared to 2.2% (equivalent to 4.3 days lost per worker) for those who never worked from home.
Other potential drawbacks for those working from home is that they may experience social isolation and boredom, feel alienated from their organisation and developments within it, and may miss workplace facilities. Pay could be affected by working at home when others return to the office post-pandemic. For example, employees in the public sector may find that they are no longer eligible for London weighting or similar location- based allowances if they are not working in an office for at least part of the week.
Employees might also look worriedly across the Atlantic, where Reuters recently reported that Google is among the large employers that are proposing to cut pay for those who work from home in an area with a lower cost of living than their former offices.
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