The implications of working from home in a post-COVID-19 world

6th May 2020

Before the COVID-19 lockdown was introduced in the UK, roughly 5% of the country’s 32.6 million active workforce worked mainly from home during 2019, the inclusion of those who work in part from home sees the figure rise to 4 million.1 Although we do not have a precise number, it is safe to assume that this figure has risen significantly with the advent of social distancing measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. The obvious questions to now pose are “could these social distancing measures create a revolution in the workplace and could we soon find working from home to be the new normal”.

A famous case study taking into account the effects of working from home was conducted by Stanford University Professor Nicholas Bloom in 2015.2 In this study 1,000 employees at the Chinese travel firm Ctrip were given the choice of either working from home or in the office over a nine-month period. Half of these employees opted to work from home and over the nine-month experiment it was found that working from home led to a 13% increase in performance and a 50% decrease in employee quit rates. The experiment also found that those working from home took fewer breaks and sick days and also took more calls a minute, which was attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment. In fact, the experiment proved such a success that Ctrip introduced the option of working from home to the whole firm.

The Ctrip study highlighted several benefits also found by those who have been working from home during this pandemic. For example, a key benefit of working from home, seen to be both environmentally and psychologically advantageous, is the lack of a work commute. This has been evidenced by a OnePoll survey (including 1,000 US office workers, 250 office workers in India, the UK, Brazil and Germany, 125 office workers in Australia and 125 office workers in New Zealand) in which 72% listed this lack of commute as a benefit of homeworking.3  Further to this, recent research has shown that one in four quit their job due to the work commute with commutes also being linked to increases in depression, divorce and fossil-fuel emissions.4 5 Other benefits of home working listed in this survey included saving money (66%), being able to spend more time with family (56%), feeling happier (45%) and being more productive (37%), with the last two being attributed to spending time away from the distracting open-plan offices that often give little privacy.6 7  According to the Atlantic (November 2017), research has shown that personal productivity increases when letting people work when and where they want, with the office offering little more than opportunities for interruption.8 Furthermore, a UK poll conducted during this pandemic found that 68% of those working from home for the first time felt more or equally productive since the government urged people to stay away from the office and 31% reported an improved work-life balance. Despite this, the poll also found that 47% of respondents believed that their employer would abandon remote working once the pandemic was over.9 It would appear that homeworking also offers much to the employer with Intetics Co-President Boris Kontsevoi stating “the location of the person is no longer as important, as long as they have a reliable Internet connection”. Not only can homeworking limit absences, increase productivity and save money, the introduction of remote working also allows for a wider net to be cast when recruiting for positions enabling you to ‘hire the best of the best while not limiting yourself by geographical restrictions’.10

However, as pointed out by Nicholas Bloom, unlike the Ctrip study, COVID-19 has forced people to work from home which has removed the element of personal choice present in the experiment – in the original experiment only half of the employees volunteered to work from home. A further way in which the study has differed from working from home during this pandemic has been the environment, with the original Ctrip study imposing strict restrictions on homework spaces. In fact, Bloom has predicted that productivity would slump whilst homeworking in this pandemic stating that “we are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days”.11 Bloom has also pointed towards what he believes to be an impending mental health crisis resulting from a lack of ‘social company’ which leaves people feeling ‘isolated, lonely and depressed’ due to extended periods of homeworking.12 13 Furthermore, whilst homeworking may improve personal productivity research has shown a decrease in ‘collaborative efficiency’ which helps with creativity and innovative thinking.14 It is still in the office that we find the fastest and highest-bandwidth allowing for the most effective communication and collaboration.15 However, communications technology has come a long way, and software such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have effectively narrowed the gap between office and homeworking.  This leads us on to the last point to be made against homeworking which is the capacity for companies to transition from office to homeworking. In a PwC survey, 41% of Americans said they didn’t have the right equipment or office set-up to work from home effectively and 31% reportedly weren’t confident that their home internet service would allow them to work efficiently.16 In addition to this, corporate networks have had the added strain of increased home working and have sometimes struggled, with the majority of connections being made through virtual private networks, resulting in sluggish downloading and saving speeds when using the company system.17

When discussing these criticisms of homeworking it is important to remember that the transition to this style of work was abrupt and had little time for preparation as a result of this coronavirus pandemic. The prospect of transitioning to homeworking as a long-term possibility should not be blunted by the negatives discussed as solutions exist to mitigate these problems that have been encountered. Continuing with the use of the Ctrip study example, it should also be noted that any transition to homeworking would still maintain an office working aspect to it. As those participating in the Ctrip study came to the office on the fifth day so to should this strategy be implemented in any homeworking arrangement in order to remain ‘tethered to the workplace’.18  Further to this, other ways in which to efficiently implement efficient homeworking is to maintain a healthy home-work balance in which a positive work environment is created that allows for good posture and natural light, as well as the physical separation of work and leisure, such as the use of separate laptops and phones for each.19 20  Another key aspect to consider for effective homeworking is to ensure the maintenance of mental health is front and centre with an active plan in place to combat feelings of isolation. Whilst the ‘tethering’ to the office will play a key part in combatting this, management understanding of their employees’ needs and working styles will be integral. This has been identified by a UCL healthy homeworking study who have found that whilst some are naturally self-disciplined, other will need external structure and support such as the use of video conferencing at the start and end of the day, or the keeping of a diary of daily objectives.21 It is also crucial when homeworking to maintain healthy and regular social relationships with co-workers. As explained by Birmingham University Business School, regular contact with others is a good way to ensure we look after the mental health of both ourselves and others. In the same article, the Business School also pointed towards the effectiveness of mindfulness when looking after your mental wellbeing and to also seek out resources to support being mindful.22

The eventual ending of this pandemic lockdown restrictions and the increased freedom to go outside will also significantly improve the mental wellbeing of everyone and not just those working from home. The ability to be able to visit family, friends and co-workers without restrictions will go some way to combating the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

With a significant portion of the office-based working population working at home as a result of this pandemic, it is expected that discussions surrounding homeworking will grow louder. Whilst there are certainly barriers to homeworking, arguably the majority of these can be solved or at least mitigated. It would appear that the implementation of this style of working has untapped potential with a myriad of benefits for both employee and employer alike. It will also be harder to argue against the potential for homeworking when the company has already invested in home equipment and would be better seen as an investment that pays off for years, rather than months to come.23