Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic: benefits, challenges and considerations for future ways of working

To understand in the short-term how employees may respond to a policy, such as working from home, this report draws on a rapid review of relevant literature (from 2020-2022) and responses from an open-ended survey with members of the public in Scotland.

Section One: The Benefits of Working From Home

Some people who worked from home during the pandemic perceived a number of benefits, including: a better work-life balance, cost and time savings from not having to commute (and a reduction in travel emissions) and feeling more productive. Working from home has also played a critical role in reducing the risk of infection from COVID-19.[13] As noted in figure 3, four main themes were identified from the literature and free text survey. They were:

Figure 3: Benefits of working from home:

  • Work life balance
  • Autonomy and productivity
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Flexibility and accessibility

Work-life Balance

'Work life balance' refers to the amount and quality of time that someone spends between their work and personal life (which includes leisure activities, eating and sleeping). The ability to effectively combine work, and personal commitments is important for well-being.[14]

In February 2022, a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that more than three-quarters (78%) of those who worked from home in the UK (in some capacity) said that this way of working gave them an improved work-life balance.[15] As noted in figure 4 below other benefits reported in this survey were related to perceptions of efficiency and improved wellbeing.

Figure 4: Percentage of UK homeworkers reporting advantages February 2022 as measured by ONS ( GB sample) [16]
The chart in Figure 4 shows the percentage of people who reported advantages to working from home in February 2022. The highest response was for ‘work life balance’. Other common responses were ‘fewer distractions’ and ‘quicker to complete work’. The response with the lowest percentage was ‘more job opportunities’.

Additional time gained from not commuting enabled some workers to spend more time with family, to save money, and to have greater control over their work schedule. It also generated benefits for those who were managing work with caring responsibilities.

A report on the experience of low paid homeworkers in the UK, noted that in September 2021, 73% of all homeworkers and 69% of low paid homeworkers said that working from home is good for their work-life balance. Working from home had created the opportunity for more and better quality time with family. The flexibility helped some workers, who had to coordinate their time between work and caring responsibilities.[17]

Researchers from the Working from Home during the COVID-19 Lockdown project, run by the University of Kent and the University of Birmingham, identified positive aspects of working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown, including the ability to take care of children, do housework and spend more time with partners.[18] These positive views were also expressed by respondents within the free-text survey:

"Working from home has been positive, it offers us more flexibility and the lack of commute means we can spend more time together as a family. Life is generally easier as a result" (Female, 35-44)

"Working from home makes it easier to manage care for children" (Male, 45-54)

Surveys conducted with UK employees found that some people reported that they had saved money while working from home, mainly due to the reduction in commuting, socialising, childcare and food costs.[19] [20] As also reported in the free-text survey:

"Working from home has allowed me to continue to pay my bills, feed my family and heat my house." (Male, 45-54)

Analysis from ONS in January 2022, on how home working has affected people's spending, found almost half of homeworkers in the UK (46%) reported spending less as a result of working from home.[21] However, likely in response to rising energy prices, the majority of homeworkers reported an increase in their spending on utility bills (86%).[22] Nevertheless, half said they spent less on fuel and parking for commuting (50%), and two-fifths said their spending on commuting on public transport had reduced (40%). It has been raised that while some costs may be offset by reduced commuting costs, the longer term considerations of the financial impacts of being at home on a full-time basis may include increased heating and lighting.[23]

Having a designated space to work at home with minimal distractions was also related to employees' adjustment and their improved work-life balance.[24] This is related to the fact that (as will be discussed in section two) the blurring of work and personal boundaries can make it harder for some employees to 'switch off' and stop thinking about work related issues when not working.[25] As described by a respondent from the survey:

"My partner already worked from home and I have adapted to it; we live in an urban area with good amenities (including open spaces); and we have no immediate caring responsibilities" (Male, 35-44)

Autonomy and productivity

Analysis from the free-text survey highlighted that perceptions of freedom, independence and flexibility to work at times that suited people's personal schedules played a part in workers' job satisfaction and perceived productivity levels. Home working has enabled some workers to adapt their working life around their personal circumstances.[26]

Research conducted before the pandemic, presented by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), has highlighted the link between working remotely (away from an office), worker satisfaction and efficiency due to less commuting or fewer distractions.[27]

"My quality of life improved (no peripatetic driving/ commute, time to sort domestic chores in breaks, ability to see daylight during working day and able to exercise at lunch and after work because no commute) and more time spent with son" (Female, 45-54).

There are however many different ways to measure productivity.[28] There are large variations across countries, sectors and firms. In general, the choice of productivity measurement depends on the objectives of the organisation, the kind of outcomes and value that workers are creating (if it is public or private, economic or social value), and the availability of data. For example, some studies use methods that could be considered as more objective to determine labour productivity. An analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on productivity, using survey data from UK businesses (2022/2021) concluded that productivity had lowered in the UK private sector, although the authors acknowledge there have been substantial differences across businesses and sectors.[29]

Other studies present evidence of employee productivity based on individual self-report surveys.[30] Work after Lockdown (a partnership of academic and applied researchers from the university, commercial, and social sector in the UK) tracked the experiences and outcomes of pandemic-driven working from home over time. Using a self-reported measure of productivity, they found that at two points in the pandemic, nearly two thirds of employees (61.7% in 2020 and 68.9% in 2021) felt they got 'much more' or a 'little more' work done at home compared to when they were in the office. This was related to feeling more focused due to a lack of disruptions, investing commuting time into work time and feeling a new-found sense of ownership and autonomy towards work which then facilitated productivity.

The OECD undertook an online survey, in 2020-2021, among managers and workers in 25 countries about their experience and expectations of working from home, with a particular focus on productivity and well-being.[31] Analysis found that managers and workers had an overall positive assessment of working from home, both for firm performance and for individual well-being. Respondents, on average, also reported that the ideal amount of remote work is around 2-3 days per week, in line with other evidence on the benefits (e.g., less commuting, fewer distractions) and also the costs (e.g., reduced in person communication and knowledge flows).

A literature review, led by Kings College London, explored the concept of productivity, within the context of home working during the pandemic.[32] The review points to a small number of studies that suggest employees may feel more productive working from home during the pandemic (for example, Guler et al., 2021). However, this review also draws attention to the fact that, when considering an individual's subjective perception of their productivity, whether positive or negative, it should be acknowledged that there are a number of influences. These include, for example, the complexity of someone's work, the need for interaction (or not) to complete tasks and someone's home and workspace conditions. Also, while studies may show that someone feels more productive than when they were in an office environment, it may not reflect a balanced relationship between outputs and the input. That is, someone may be working longer hours when they are at home than when they were in an office.

Another factor that should be taken into account when thinking about an employee's productivity and performance, when working from home, is the influence of their co-workers. Using data collected before the pandemic, from employees across 9 European countries, a team of researchers explored worker performance where employees and co-workers are working from home. Acknowledging this research was conducted before the pandemic (and so working from home was voluntary) their analysis points to a number of dynamics that will underpin people's perceptions. Such as, how employees influence each other, how they use each other's skills and knowledge, and the role of IT platforms in facilitating interactions with co-workers.[33]

Health and Wellbeing

Several factors positively impacted on people's physical and mental health and sense of wellbeing, while working from home during the pandemic.

Working from home reduced the transmission of COVID-19 by decreasing people's workplace and public transport interactions.[34] The ability to be able to work from home has therefore been beneficial for those at highest risk of becoming severely ill if they caught COVID-19.[35]

"I quit my job in hospitality after being on furlough for a few months while I found something I could do from home. I work as a telephone interviewer/researcher which will support the degree I am working towards. I am lucky to have technology that allows me to work from home to keep myself safe." (Female, high risk, 25-34)

Polling commissioned by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) in 2020 found that more (45%) UK based workers felt that working from home was better for their health and wellbeing, compared to 29% who said it was worse for their wellbeing.[36]

The majority in the RSPH survey, across all subgroups (e.g., age, living situation, caring responsibilities), felt working from home was having a positive rather than negative impact on mental health, with the exception of those who lived with multiple housemates. In particular, those who were aged 35 plus, were more likely to think that working from home was better for their health and wellbeing compared to 18-34 year-olds (48% vs 34%).

Some home workers from the free-text survey associated home working with an improved quality of life, generated through financial savings, more leisure time and a positive change to their working environment:

"The pandemic has made it possible for me to always work remotely. I've stayed in touch with friends and family via zoom, do socially distanced volunteering, and spend a lot of time outside gardening, hill walking, or walking with friends. The lack of commuting and not having to work in an open plan office have improved my quality of life immeasurably." (Female, 45-54)

"Working from home has improved quality of life. Lost weight, walk every day, saved money and genuinely happier" (Female 45-54).

The fact that some workers perceived that they had more time to exercise links with wider research conducted across Europe (including the UK) that found increases in interest and engagement with physical activity during the beginning of the pandemic.[37] [38] [39]

Another factor that may be beneficial for health is more rest time. In May–July 2020, data was collected with office workers in full-time employment in Sweden. They wore an electronic device that assessed physical behaviour during seven consecutive days. A diary was also used to identify periods of work, leisure and sleep. Days working from home were associated with more time spent sleeping relative to awake. Sedentary, standing and moving behaviours did not change markedly during days working from home compared to days working in an office.[40]

The link between working from home, increased opportunities to exercise and the positive impact this may have in terms of reduced transport emissions was described in the free-text survey:

"Working from home has been great. I never want to go back to the office. Such better work/life balance. I can cook every day, get my laundry out in the sunshine, fit in exercise classes or medical appointments. I'm saving on petrol and parking every day I'm at home which is better for the environment." (Female, 35-44)

However, sleep and rest time is a health related issue where experiences can vary depending on someone's home environment and their personal circumstances. Polling conducted by RSPH noted that 29% of those working from a dedicated home office reported worsesleep, compared to nearly half (47%) of those working from a sofa or bedroom.[41]

Flexibility and accessibility

Working from home can be beneficial for those with health issues who may require regular breaks, need to remain close to medical equipment or those who have unpredictable flare ups.[42] The World Health Organisation endorsed home based working for disabled people during the pandemic.[43] Analysis of pre-COVID data on disability and home based work, from three American surveys, found that workers with disabilities (employees and self-employed) were more likely to work from home. Therefore, there may be benefits here from expanded working from home opportunities.[44]

Some respondents from the free-text survey, who identified as having a physical or mental impairment, illness or disability described their preferences for working from home during the pandemic:

"I have much preferred working from home. It has meant (due to my sight loss) I work in a truly completely accessible environment and have access to a clean toilet and kitchen facilities which wasn't the case pre-pandemic." (Female, 45-54).

"Working from home has improved my asthma symptoms so much that I was able to reduce strength of steroid inhaler for first time in over 20 years because I was able to control my own environment and was not exposed to all the seasonal viruses and triggers that exacerbate it when commuting and in the office" (Female, 55-64)

Research conducted in Wales, in 2020 and 2021, to identify employees priorities for future work, identified that flexible work was consistently more likely to be prioritised by those in poorer health. The majority (64%) of those that were not in good health placed it as a priority, compared to 52% of the respondents who identified as being in good health.[45]

Research stemming from the UK based Work After Lockdown project also noted that the ability to work at home had a positive impact in terms of retaining staff who may have otherwise retired on ill health grounds. Employees explained that working from home enabled them to manage conditions such as a migraine or anxiety in a way that would not have been possible in the office.

Similarly, a survey conducted in Australia in 2022, with women who have endometriosis, reported that it was much easier to manage within a home environment than an office-based environment. Workers with this condition felt they were more productive and the key to this was flexibility, with an increased ability to manage their time.[46]



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