Flexible working, including remote and hybrid working, has been growing gradually in the UK, but it increased substantially during the pandemic. A new briefing paper from the UK Parliament provides an overview of trends and impacts on workers.
Flexible working describes working arrangements that give people flexibility over where, when and how they work. Remote working refers to flexible working based on location, where workers work at home or at a place other than the traditional workspace where the employer is based. ‘Hybrid’ working refers to a combination of office-remote arrangements. Other flexible working models can be established on the number of hours and when these are worked, including flexitime and compressed hours.
The Commons Library briefing paper on Flexible working: Remote and hybrid work provides further detail on the current UK legislation and prospective reform, broad trends during the COVID-19 pandemic and relevant guidance.
Data on remote and hybrid working show that:
- Before the pandemic, remote and hybrid working had been increasing gradually. Between January and December 2019, around 1 in 10 (12%) of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week, and around 1 in 20 (5%) reported working mainly from home.
- This increased substantially during the pandemic, to a peak of around half (49%) of the workers in Great Britain (GB) working at least one day from home in June 2020; 11% of the workforce worked at least one day from home, and 38% worked from home exclusively.
- As pandemic restrictions were lifted, these numbers gradually decreased again but remained higher than pre-pandemic numbers. In September 2022, around 1 in 5 (22%) of the GB workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week, and around 1 in 8 (13%) worked from home exclusively.
There is significant variation in flexible working trends, particularly remote and hybrid working, seen across sectors, industries, occupations, roles and qualifications, earnings, employment type, region, age, gender, ethnicity, disability and caring responsibilities. Of course, many of these factors are interrelated, but in general, pre-pandemic and post-lockdown data suggest that:
- Higher levels of flexibility are reported in the public sector compared to the private sector. People in the public sector are more likely to work flexible hours like flexitime or part-time and less likely to work remotely than the private sector. And self-employed workers were more likely to work at home sometimes or always than employees before the pandemic and during the lockdowns.
- There are significant differences between different industries. People working in information and communication, professional, technical, and administrative industries are likelier to work at home than those in skilled trades and service occupations. These differences have become more pronounced during the pandemic.
- Managers and supervisors are more likely to work from home sometimes or always compared to non-managers and non-supervisors. People with higher qualifications are more likely to do some work remotely than people with no or lower qualifications. Both these trends have continued throughout the pandemic.
- There is substantial variation in remote and hybrid working rates across the four nations and English regions, with rates before the pandemic highest in London, the South-East and the South-West. During the pandemic, there was an increase in remote working across all regions, although there was considerable variation across these areas.
- Rates vary by age group, with people aged 35-54 more likely to work from home sometimes than others. However, during the pandemic, the number of young people (16-34) working a hybrid pattern more than doubled, the most significant increase across age groups.
Evidence suggests that most workers would like to carry out hybrid working in the future, with survey data from 2021 and 2022 estimating that more than 80% of employees who worked from home because of the pandemic prefer a hybrid working model. However, survey data suggest that organisational preferences for hybrid working were mixed. Nevertheless, a quarter to around two-thirds of employers in 2021 report that they intend to introduce or expand hybrid working to some degree.
Assessing the specific impacts of remote and hybrid working is challenging because pre-pandemic studies are based on contexts where the employee has requested remote working. In contrast, remote working was enforced during the pandemic, and pandemic-specific studies cannot establish longer-term outcomes, with evidence showing mixed findings.
Impacts on workers
Research indicates that workers perceive both benefits and disadvantages to flexible working. For example, remote and hybrid working benefits for staff include increased well-being, self-reported productivity and work satisfaction, reduced work-life conflict, new ways to collaborate and more inclusive ways of working through technology. On the other hand, challenges include longer working hours, increased work intensity, distractions and health issues, decreased social interactions, fewer promotion and learning opportunities and an inability to disconnect from work.
Available research suggests that:
- Remote and hybrid working can positively and negatively impact workers’ health and well-being. ONS data show that in February 2022, almost half of those who worked from home in some capacity reported that it improved well-being (47%). Positive and negative health impacts vary by socio-demographic characteristics and individual factors, such as an employee’s work satisfaction and personal circumstances. During the pandemic, enforced home working has been among the most common causes of workplace stress; however, it is challenging to attribute findings on health and well-being from data collected during the pandemic to remote and hybrid working alone because of the broader impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health;
- Remote and hybrid working can positively and negatively impact work-life balance. ONS data show that in February 2022, more than three-quarters (78%) of those who worked from home in some capacity reported that working from home improved their work-life balance. However, remote and hybrid working can lead to the blurring of work-life boundaries, pressure to be available online, and an increase in unpaid overtime work hours. Whilst the use of information and communication technologies to engage in work-related tasks outside of work time can make it difficult for workers to switch off;
- In self-reported surveys, around two-thirds or more of employees working at home say they got as much done as pre-pandemic in the workplace. However, there is variation in self-reported worker productivity, where younger workers report feeling less productive, but disabled workers report feeling more productive;
- Before the pandemic, people who worked mainly remotely were less likely to be promoted and to have access to training opportunities. There is limited data to suggest whether this trend has continued throughout the pandemic, and it may change if more people work at home more frequently. Research from before and during the lockdowns indicates a ‘flexibility stigma’ – a biased attitude – towards remote workers, though there are some indications that lockdowns have reduced this stigma.
Impacts on organisations
Research indicates that organisations perceive both benefits and disadvantages to flexible working. Benefits of remote and hybrid working for organisations include increased staff well-being, reduced overhead costs, productivity gains, reduced sickness and absence levels and more efficient labour allocation. Challenges include reduced mental well-being of staff, difficulties in staff interaction, collaboration, engagement and connection, negative impacts on working culture and productivity losses. Available research suggests that:
- Businesses cite improved staff well-being as the key reason to increase homeworking in the future. However, employers also note the reduced mental well-being of staff due to isolation as a critical challenge. Other challenges include difficulties collaborating and the feeling that workers became more disconnected from their work and organisation. Many organisations consider that some in-person time will help to address these challenges, and more innovative use of technologies could mitigate these negative impacts;
- There are limited data on the effects of remote and hybrid working on productivity. Findings from self-reported surveys of employers suggest that around a third to half of employers consider that there has been no change in productivity since the rise in remote and hybrid working due to the pandemic. Of those who report a change, more consider that there has been a decrease in productivity than an increase. The levels of productivity reported by employers also vary between industries, with the most significant increase in accommodation and food service activities and the greatest decrease in manufacturing;
- Senior leaders and human resources teams are crucial to setting the organisational behaviours and culture to enable and support flexible working. Line manager behaviour and decision-making are pivotal in increasing or limiting access to flexible working, and line manager support for remote working is considered particularly important by disabled workers. However, line manager capability to manage homeworkers and monitor staff performance are cited as key challenges by employers, and line managers may need more training to manage teams remotely;
- Remote working may expand the current labour pool, making jobs accessible to more people, irrespective of where they live. This could reduce the level of skill mismatch in the economy as workers can better match their skills to new openings in the labour market. The evidence for this positive impact on recruitment is limited, and younger people are less likely to see working at home as a benefit.
The societal impact on energy consumption and the environment is still being determined, with little available evidence to support a clear conclusion. For example, increasing remote and hybrid working could enhance air quality and reduce plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, it could also increase energy consumption and electronic waste.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the pandemic has shifted attitudes and that more urgency is required to support more inclusive approaches to work, management and training on various skills from leadership, management, cybersecurity and improving our digital capabilities.
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This article and the full report were first published on Monday, 17 October 2022, as a research briefing by the UK parliament. It contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.