The work from home revolution is here to stay – if you’re rich, white and live in London | André Spicer
A few days ago, I witnessed first-hand what working from home was doing to our society. It was a normal work day, and I rushed from my home to the local tube station. As I descended the stairs, I steeled myself for the usual crush of the Central line. But when the train whooshed into the station and I boarded, something seemed odd. It was 8.50am, I was heading into the City of London, and there was a seat available. In fact, there was not just one seat – I counted about 10 free seats on my carriage. Usually you would be lucky to find standing space, so I was trying to figure out what was wrong. I soon realised that it was Friday – the most popular day for employees to work from home.
During the past few years, we have witnessed a revolution in working life. When home working became more common during the Covid pandemic, many assumed this would be a temporary change. Yet according to data released this week by the Office for National Statistics, between September 2022 and January 2023, 16% of the workforce still worked solely from home, while 28% were hybrid workers who split their time between home and the office. Even more than this – 40% – had worked from home at some point in the past seven days, compared with just 12% in 2019. This reflects global trends. A survey of employees in 27 countries found that working from home is becoming much more of a norm. Employees in this sample spent an average of 1.5 days working from home. The UK average was 2 days.
But what the data makes starkly clear is that the working from home revolution has not touched everyone’s lives equally. The ONS survey found that workers on salaries of more than £50,000, people with degrees, Londoners and white people had the highest rates of home or hybrid working – and were less likely to be required to go in every day. This reminds us that working from home is only a reality for a fairly small part of the workforce. There are many people working in the service, care and transportation sectors, for instance, who can’t work from home at all.
There is a real danger that these trends entrench existing inequalities, and that the working from home revolution may pass by those who would benefit most. Parents with dependent children had only slightly higher rates of hybrid working, while the rates among those with long-term illnesses or disabilities were roughly the same as the overall average.
Working from home hugely benefits workers: they gain on average 72 minutes a day, have higher job satisfaction and are less likely to quit. Its rise has sparked something of a moral panic among some bosses, but this misses the fact that working from home is generally also good for employers. It dampens wage inflation, it means employees are more productive – and employees spend about half of those extra 72 minutes on work. A study of an engineering firm that introduced working from home policies found that employees were 33% less likely to quit and more likely to say they were satisfied. Engineers in this study wrote 4.4% more lines of code when working from home.
Another study based on UK data found that employees who worked from home reported high levels of productivity and spent more time working when they were at home. This was particularly true for employees such as professionals and managers who had high levels of autonomy over their work.
A final benefit of working from home for employers that was unearthed in a recent study is that it can help bosses to control their wage bills. In recent months most companies have seen employees demanding large pay rises so their pay packets keep pace with inflation. It seems that employees are willing to trade off small amounts of pay for their ability to work from home. One study found that the working from home reduced wage growth by about two percentage points over two years.
Some managers have initially struggled to know how to manage their employees when they are out of sight. However, it is interesting to note that evidence suggests that after about six months of managing people remotely, bosses get used to it and adopt new tactics. Often this means less informal interaction and more use of electronic monitoring. A survey by the Atlanta Fed found that 41% of businesses in its sample had increased communication with staff via phone and video call, while 28% had introduced more frequent check-ins and formal reviews. This might make life easier, but there is a danger of employees’ wider social networks in the office becoming less dense. One Australian study found that employees working from home could feel lonely and isolated. However, this could be circumvented by ensuring people got support from their colleagues (other than their bosses), and spent at least some time in the same location.
Working from home doesn’t benefit everyone – some jobs could never be done remotely, and retail and transport companies are having to adjust to significant falls in footfall and usage. Overall, though, this revolution could change work and our lives outside work for the better – but to do so, it must be accessible to more than just the highest paid, most privileged workers.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London. He is the author of the book Business Bullshit