Myth of pandemic home-working revealed in UK study of labour market

Statistics show only a quarter of people worked from home

Most people in the UK did not work from home in 2020 despite a perception that most had set up offices in their living rooms.

While Zoom calls and temporary work stations were awash on social media, statistics examining the trend appear to show that the reality for most was their working environment did not change.

The Office for National Statistics data showed about a quarter of people (25.9 per cent) said they worked from home in the week prior to being surveyed between January and December last year.

That is more than double the 12.4 per cent of people who worked from home in 2019, reflecting government advice to stay at home if possible to curb the spread of Covid-19.

But the statistics confirm most British people have continued to commute to work since the health crisis began, with those living in London the most likely to shift to remote working.

The survey of about 320,000 people asked respondents about two scenarios: if they had worked at home in the week prior to being contacted by officials, and whether they had ever done any work from home.

About 46 per cent of those working in the capital said they worked from home at some point in 2020.

Those in more affluent boroughs were more likely to work from home. More than 70 per cent of employees in Richmond upon Thames in south-west London said they had worked from home in 2020.

The ONS said this reflected the higher concentration of professional workers in London and south-east England.

People in jobs that require face-to-face interaction, physical activity or the use of equipment, or who worked in dangerous environments, such as firefighters, were least likely to work from home. Access to technology also heavily influenced an employee’s ability to remain at home, the ONS said.

"The number of people home-working has gone up quite a lot and maybe you'd expect it to be a bit more," ONS labour market statistician Debra Leaker told The National.

“The point is not everyone can work from home.”

The home-working figure was lowest in South Ayrshire, south-west of Glasgow, where only 9 per cent of employees said they had ever worked from home. In the northern English towns of Burnley and Middlesbrough, the figure was less than 14 per cent.

Employees in more highly paid jobs were more likely to work from home. For instance, 83.7 per cent of chief executives said they had worked at home at some point in the previous year.

This compared with fewer than 10 per cent of cleaners, factory workers and mechanics.

Home workers also tended to be older and farther along in their careers. People in their forties twice were likely to be working from home than those aged between 20 and 24.

‘Unfair’ to those who cannot work from home

Claire McCartney, a policy adviser for CIPD, the body representing the UK human resources industry, said their own figures showed about half of the workforce had not worked at home at all since the start of the pandemic.

"We have seen an increase in people working from home during the pandemic but there is a whole swathe of people who cannot work from home because their job does not allow them to, but for other reasons as well, such as a lack of privacy, mental health reasons or issues around isolation," she told The National.

“Part of our national focus has been on home-working and the notion of hybrid working, but we really must not forget there is a big group of people who cannot benefit from that flexibility.”

She said employers should introduce schemes such as flexible working hours for those who cannot work from home.

"There are inequalities by occupation and region and that is not fair," she said.
"That's why we need to get organisations and governments thinking more creatively about this. It's really important that if organisations are moving to that hybrid working model that they treat everyone the same."

The ONS said the share of people doing their jobs remotely fluctuated in line with government guidance, with 46.6 per cent of employees reporting in April 2020 that they had worked from home at least once during the first lockdown.

This fell to a low of 27 per cent in August as Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked people to return to work, before rising sharply back to 47 per cent in early February this year as restrictions tightened.

Separate data from Eurostat shows only 12.3 per cent of workers in the EU usually performed their job from home in 2020.

People in Finland were the most likely to work from home (25.1 per cent), while those in Bulgaria were least likely to do so (1.2 per cent).