Is remote working really so bad? The benefits of working from home during Covid-19

Blog posts

20 Apr 2020

Beth Mason

Beth Mason, Research Officer

Millions of people have been forced to work from home since the coronavirus outbreak; something that employers were traditionally reluctant to offer their staff has  become a necessity. This pandemic has thrust a large proportion of the workforce into an impromptu experiment, testing what life might be like without a physical place of work. Needless to say, increased ergonomic risks, separation from colleagues, and reliance on Zoom (and in people’s ability to use it), coupled with the psychological toll of living through a pandemic, is harming the mental and physical health of many. But it’s not all bad.

Our survey of the wellbeing of homeworkers under lockdown shows that, for some people, working from home is having a positive effect on both their work and lifestyle. Over a third of respondents felt that working from home was very motivational; our survey reported that the three best things about working from home were: the dearth of the daily commute, increased autonomy, and being in an environment which enhances productivity. So, will this pandemic ‘pilot study’ lead to a greater prevalence of home-working, post Covid-19, and how might managers and HR professionals best support staff and promote these benefits?

The interim survey analysis showed that, overwhelmingly, the most commonly cited benefit of home working was the elimination of the dreaded commute. People identified that by not travelling to work, they were saving money, reducing the stress and tiredness associated with commuting, and having a positive impact on the environment. Compared to the same period in 2019, figures produced by the University of York have shown a significant reduction in air pollution in some UK cities, since lockdown was initiated.

Respondents said that cutting out commuting gives them more free time, activities included: spending time with their families, cooking, or just having a lie-in. One respondent said: ‘Time saved on commuting in the morning is used for exercise. Less stressful as [I’m] not worrying about being late for work or getting home late.’  Whatever way people choose to spend this additional time, it is a ‘win’ for homeworking as people find a more equal balance between their work and their home life. Our results showed that 44 per cent of individuals do not have difficulty managing the boundary between work and home and almost half of the respondents (49%) are satisfied with their current work-life balance.  

The next most valued benefit was the increased flexibility in working hours and greater independence over the ways they worked, with 62 per cent of respondents stating they loved the autonomy of working from home. People reported that being able to choose the hours they worked helped them fit work around other aspects of their lives such as child care, exercise, and household chores. ‘Logging on when it fits in around the children and into the evening if required. Exercise half way through the day’. It also means that people can work when they feel they are likely to be most productive, rather than working at prescribed times of the day.

Recent research by the CIPD supports our finding that flexible working can improve productivity, as well as retention, satisfaction and wellbeing. Workers can also take breaks when they need to, without being under the watchful gaze of senior colleagues. One respondent described how they could use their breaks to be productive as well as doing things they enjoyed, ‘Flexibility to fit in daily mundane tasks throughout the day rather than having to do them all in the evening (loading the washing machine etc.) Able to spend more time in my home environment (which is nice) when taking breaks - sitting in garden, playing with dog, lunch with partner etc.- in the office I sit at my desk’. As another respondent observed, this kind of working requires  employer trust, ‘The flexibility my employer is giving staff in terms of changing the working pattern/hours to suit - being trusted to get on with the job’.

Many respondents reported increased productivity as one of the top three benefits of working from home. Just under half of homeworkers felt it gave them the opportunity to develop new and better ways of doing their job (49%). Some felt the reduction in meetings and more efficient communications using technology helped their effectiveness. Improved productivity was also commonly linked with people finding that there were fewer distractions at home, or enjoying a more peaceful environment compared to the office, particularly for the more introverted workforce. One respondent told us ‘I am able to concentrate and be more productive as there is no background noise. My employer has been more vocal about the quality of work produced since we’ve been working from home’.

These productivity gains will vary depending on the individual’s workspace setups, whether they are sharing with other people or juggling childcare at the same time. There is plenty of evidence that a well-designed working environment is key to minimising the detrimental effects of work space on health and wellbeing. However, as well as its contribution to productivity, many respondents said their homeworking environment was a benefit because of the comforts it afforded them such as having access to a garden or even just a window, a good cup of coffee, home-cooked lunches, lack of dress code, or listening to music while working.

Of course, the generalisability of these findings is limited by the sample of our survey. We also know that, for many individuals, remote working can be detrimental to their health, well-being, motivation and ability to work productively. However, for others, the benefits in reclaimed time, productivity, and flexibility are positively impacting their health, relationships, and their opportunities to do the things that interest them.

So while some bosses might imagine we are all sitting in our pyjamas, occasionally wiggling our mouse to stay ‘online’, taking leisurely lunches, and clocking off early for that G&T, it might be time for many more of them to face up to the fact that more home-working might make good business sense. In a ‘post-crisis’ world many workers may have a preference for continuing to work from home and those managers who are prepared to trust their staff, give them more autonomy and allow more discretion over working patterns may reap the rewards.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) Working at Home Wellbeing survey is still open. To take part and share your experiences of working from home during COVID-19 click here. Results will be posted on the IES website during May 2020.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.