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 Two: The Challenges of Home Working

The unplanned and rapid requirement to work from home during the pandemic (for affected sectors) was also associated with a number of challenges. In particular, balancing caring responsibilities with home learning and work was demanding. Not having the correct equipment, lacking space to work and feeling isolated and disconnected due to the absence of workplace interactions also had a negative impact on some people. As noted in figure 5, five themes were identified from the literature and free text survey on the challenges of working from home. They were:

Figure 5: Challenges of working from home:

  • Loss of social interaction
  • Conflict and blurred boundaries
  • Overworking and increased responsibilities
  • Physical health and inactivity
  • Workspace environment

Loss of social interaction

Loneliness is a personal feeling, experienced when there is a difference between the social relationships we would like to have and those we have.[47] Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, there have been higher than usual levels of reported loneliness amongst people in Scotland. As detailed in Figure 6, before the pandemic in 2019, 21% of respondents reported that they felt lonely at least some of the time in the past week[48] [49]. Public attitudes polling at the start of the pandemic showed a sharp increase in self-reported levels of loneliness. Between 53% to 59% of people reported feeling lonely.[50] This has improved over time but remains higher (at 49%) than the pre-pandemic measure in 2018.[51]

Figure 6: Loneliness in Scotland July 2020- May 2022. Source: SHS, YouGov
The chart in Figure 6 shows the percentage of people who stated in a survey that they felt lonely at least some of the time in the last week from 2020 to 2022. In 2019, before the pandemic, 21% of people reported that they feel lonely. In 2020 this sharply increased to 49%. This has improved over time but still remains higher than before the pandemic.

While there are a number of drivers of loneliness, research into the experience of home working in 2020/2021 among the UK population, noted that a lack of social interaction and face to face contact as a result of home working is major area of concern.[52] [53] UK survey research identified that people's mental wellbeing and sense of loneliness worsened in those who could work from home.[54] [55] Qualitative research has identified that employees who were required to work from home during the pandemic missed the in-person and often spontaneous encounters with colleagues.[56]

Adding to this, an online survey conducted by Ipsos MORI with people in Scotland in January 2022, found that those who felt lonely 'most' or 'all of the time' were more likely to report that relationships with colleagues were weaker (36% compared to the 18% average).[57]

It is worth noting that it is not just the absence of the social aspect of work that was challenging for some people. UK based research indicated that working with other people provides a structure and routine to the day that is noticeably absent when homeworking.[58] Respondents from the free-text survey described the challenge of adjusting from a busy office environment to a home environment and their feelings of isolation and loneliness:

"I was required to work from home and this is very difficult to do when you are used to working in a busy office environment. You then became isolated and not part of a team." (Age/gender not specified)

"Work from home has made me isolated and lonely with no division between work and family life." (Female, 35-44).

Working from home is associated with fewer in person contacts. Home workers in Scotland had around 2.5 to 3 times fewer interactions with people, than those working outside the home, in January 2022.[59] However, importantly, social isolation and loneliness can be experienced independently from one another.[60] That is, while isolation or periods of being alone may contribute to feelings of loneliness, some people can experience loneliness despite having close connections with other people.

Understanding who may be most affected by experiences of isolation and loneliness when working from home is important. Wider survey data conducted with people in Scotland shows that loneliness is higher amongst young adults, people living alone, those with a mental or physical health conditions, people with lower household income, those living with children and women.[61]

When focusing on the experiences of those who have been working from home during the pandemic there are similar patterns of inequality. Research conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) in 2020, suggests that women who were working at home were more likely to report feelings of isolation than men.[62] This feeling was shared by a respondent from the free-text survey:

"Working from home is not good. As a mother, going to the office was my opportunity to socialise. I've lost it all" (Female, 35-44)

A UK based study exploring people's ability to, and preference for working from home, found that younger individuals (under 50 years of age) and those with low mental-wellbeing were also more likely to report negative impacts to their mental well-being and sense of loneliness when working from home.[63]

While home workers may agree that team work can suffer as a result of home working, this may be particularly the case for younger workers who can be more reliant on their peer group for socialisation and interaction.[64] This may then lead to greater negative impacts from the isolation of home working. [65]

The lack of in-person collaboration may also generate negative consequences in terms of younger people's level of professional support, training, networking and career progression in the future.[66] Two respondents from the free-text survey described their frustrations:

"Working from home has been terrible for my job prospects as a young graduate. I have been unable to form social bonds with colleagues" (Male, 25-34)

"I'm sick of working from home - it's made starting a new job harder and takes much longer to do anything as if you need to ask anything then you need to phone someone and ask instead of just speaking to the person next to you" (Female 35-44)

Conflict and blurred boundaries

A review of the mental and physical effects of working from home found that working from home has contributed to feelings of conflict for some people.[67] The combination of anxiety associated with the pandemic and issues such as home schooling, living in constant close proximity to other family members, and not having adequate space to work had a negative impact on people's relationships.

Research conducted before the pandemic suggested that working from home can increase levels of conflict between someone's work and family roles – something which is sometimes referred to as 'work-family conflict'.[68] This can be due to people working at times that are scheduled for time with family or people worrying about work outside of work hours.[69]

Qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses with individuals in America, who transitioned to working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, described perceptions of work-family conflict and the associated impact it had on feelings of stress and emotions such as guilt.[70] Participants in this same study, felt it was difficult to set boundaries between work and home due to a lack of necessary support and resources. This had an effect on their working from home experience and their health and well-being.

Respondents from the free-text survey spoke about some of the strains in their own home:

"My husband and I are probably going to get a divorce this year. There's no doubt that the extra stress of covid, lockdown, home schooling has impacted on our relationship. Working from home has also impacted on it, as we've not had our own space." (Female, 35-44)

"I was not able to get furloughed so had to home educate and continue working. I feel I badly let my children down and their wellbeing and education suffered hugely." (Female, 35-44)

An issue that appeared to intensify feelings of strain was the fact that some people did not perceive a lack of separation between their personal and work life.[71] [72] Survey research conducted in the UK found that some workers found it hard to switch off at the end of the day and take regular breaks when they worked from home.[73]

As will be discussed in the last section on challenges (workspace environment) the environment and resources that people work within can impact on their ability to create a sense of separation between their home and personal life. For example, research conducted as part of the Working@Home Project found that women were less likely than men to have a separate closed off room to work in. This may then make it more difficult to detach from the domestic environment.[74] [75]

Overworking and increased responsibilities

During the pandemic, it has been reported that workers from across the world (who use a range of online interfaces) were working longer, on average, than they did before the pandemic.[76] [77] Analysis of the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people, in 16 global cities affected by lockdown orders (including London), found that the average workday increased by 8.2% (or 48.5 minutes) during the pandemic's early weeks in 2020.[78]

This can be problematic as working more hours in the day is related to negative outcomes such as stress and a reduction in job satisfaction. Also, as discussed above, the blurring of work-life boundaries.[79]

This quote below, taken from the free-text survey, describes this challenge. It also raises the issue of remote employee monitoring.[80] It has been suggested that the use of employee monitoring can have negative impacts on employees and it can erode trust.[81]

"I am also working way more than I did when I physically went to work, as my employer assumes that since I'm home all day I'm available all the time. I am working much longer hours with less breaks because my organisation is constantly checking if I'm logged in. It seems there's more of a need to prove we're working more now." (Female, 25-34)

The pandemic restricted people's access to formal and informal care services (including, home-based care, community based care and care homes).[82] This increased the number of people who were balancing unpaid caring responsibilities with paid employment.[83] For example, those with the added tasks of home schooling, caring for pre-school children and/or caring for relatives. This combination of trying to juggle work commitments with increased caring responsibilities was associated with challenges. Using semi-structured interviews, a study exploring family carers' experiences of balancing work and care in Ireland, found that attempting to manage work and caring responsibilities generated considerable stress, with the boundary between work and care becoming increasingly blurred during the pandemic.[84]

Similarly, a respondent from the free-text survey described the challenge of trying to manage home schooling during the pandemic alongside home working:

"Home working and home schooling simultaneously was ridiculous, and a recipe for burnout" (Female, 35-44)

While one of the benefits of working from home (see section one) was saving money due to decreased childcare costs, this can have a negative impact on the caregivers' mental health. Polling conducted by RSPH, found that two thirds (65%) of people who provided care for at least one child found they experienced increased stress from managing childcare and work.[85]

A review of literature on pandemic-related changes to work and family in the United States, provides insights into how and in what ways the pandemic has affected men and women differently.[86] Examples include, the way the experience of working from home has posed gender-related work and productivity challenges (and opportunities) in the absence of institutional childcare support.

Focusing in on the UK, drawing on data collected by the NatCen Panel (a representative sample of adults across Britain) in January 2022, women were more likely than men to be extremely worried about their work-life balance and about their level of education, training and qualifications. These differences between men and women were not seen in data collected in January 2018 or January 2019.[87]

A further study, using self-report questionnaires with heterosexual participants, from a number of countries (with the majority residing in the UK or Ireland), raises questions about the gendered implications of COVID-19 for work and care. Findings indicated that women who worked from home during the pandemic, performed more caregiving and spent less time on paid work duties. Additionally, during the initial lockdown in 2020, women reported more burnout, and work-family conflict than men.[88]

Although it should be noted that these findings only provide the starting point for exploring how lockdowns and restrictions on people's access to care services may impact on men and women differently. The analysis described is centred around documenting trends and variations in work and domestic labour. Additional studies will be required to test theories in order to explain the differences identified, to explore how gender and caregiving may impact on career outcomes and wellbeing and to understand their significance within a Scottish context.

Physical health and inactivity

While some people engaged in more exercise during lockdown (see section one) periods of lockdown have also been associated with a decrease in levels of physical activity and an increase in sedentary behaviour.[89] [90] A systematic review that aimed to investigate global differences in physical activity and sedentary behaviour before and during lockdown, in 2020, found that most studies (out of 66) reported decreases in physical activity and increases in sedentary behaviour.[91] However, most of the studies in this review used self-reported, subjective measures of physical activity. Therefore, the findings should be interpreted with the consideration that people may have found it difficult to recall how much physical activity they were engaging in before the pandemic. Also, that the experience of the pandemic may have impacted on these perceptions.

All the same, this is an issue that requires consideration within the context of working of home. Respondents from the free-text survey described a number of challenges relating to their health that specifically stemmed from the disruption to their normal, pre-pandemic work routine:

"The downside to working from home is my fitness has suffered and weight gained through reduced activity, even only from walking to and from the train station." (Male, 45-54)

"I've now been working from home for almost 2 years come March … this is a drastic change and I find all sorts of negatives… isolation, weight gain." (Female, 45-54)

Academic researchers assessed the habits of 184 workers who had begun working from home during the first UK lockdown in 2020. They found that 70% of the respondents reported more sedentary behaviour, 63% reported an increase in smoking, 41% increased their alcohol consumption and 39% their overall food intake.[92] Correlational analysis (a statistical technique to test for associations between variables) also revealed an association between sedentary behaviour, poor mental health and worse work productivity.

Mandatory working at home has also affected patterns of dietary consumption.[93] A UK study on the effect of the pandemic on diets found that there was a 15% increase in calories consumed by the end of the first lockdown in 2020. The study attributed working from home as a key factor in this increase.[94] From polling conducted by RSPH, it was reported that 23% (from a sample of 678) said they ate more healthily due to a reduction in commuting time, a larger percentage (31%) say they were eating more unhealthily.[95]

Considering the wider associations, academics who run the UCL COVID-19 Social study (a UK panel study collecting weekly data during the pandemic) explored eating behaviours during lockdown in 2020. They wanted to explore people's behaviours over time and look at what factors may influence people's eating behaviour trajectories. Participants with greater depressive symptoms were more likely to report any change in eating. Loneliness was linked to persistently eating more, being single or divorced, as well as reporting more stressful life events (e.g. bereavement) were associated with consistently eating less.[96]

Polling conducted by RSPH with UK based employees, to find out what they had been provided with to work effectively, showed some variation. Findings indicted that 51% had been offered a laptop, 20% were offered information/support about staying active, 17% were offered a fully adjustable chair, 8% a laptop stand and only 7% a desk.[97] This may be problematic, as working for long hours with an unsuitable set up can put people at an increased risk of back, neck, joint and muscle pains, also known as musculoskeletal problems.[98]

Research suggests that compared to previous work in the office, some home workers experienced musculoskeletal health problems (including back and neck pain) when working from home.[99] [100] [101] For example, an online questionnaire conducted in 2020 with Australian residents working from home during the pandemic, found that 70% (from a sample of over 900) of all respondents reported experiencing musculoskeletal pain or discomfort.[102]

This can a particular issue for those who had to work from the sofa or those who worked from a desk or table in their living room.[103] As will be discussed in more detail in the next section, poorer work conditions at home (relating to space and equipment) can negatively impact on someone's health and work experiences.

"Working from home has injured my back. I have spent around £750 on chiropractic and physio care. I can afford this but many people would not be able to. My health and mental health are definitely worse than they were." (Female, 45-54)

Workspace environment

Working from home can have a negative impact on employees due to the environment that someone is required to work in. Challenges including insufficient internet access and living in shared housing are factors that may contribute to how challenging someone may perceive working from home.[104]

Leading with the belief that an employee's workspace context, including their satisfaction with their workspace, plays a major role in shaping the work at home experience, a team of researchers in America conducted an online survey to examine how worker, workspace and work related factors affected productivity. The results from the survey indicated that employees' self-assessed productivity levels were higher for workers who have a dedicated workspace at home, in comparison to those who do not have a dedicated workspace.[105] The authors of this study suggest that their work illuminates potential equity issues, as many workers may not have the capability or resources necessary to create an ideal work from home environment.

Digital skills and access to the internet have played a crucial role in facilitating homeworking throughout the pandemic, from video conferencing to emailing. In 2018, in Scotland, 10.7% of the population were internet non-users. This compares to 7% in London (the lowest proportion of internet non-users) and 14.2% in Northern Ireland (the highest proportion).[106] Non-use of the internet can be due to a range of factors such as, lack of skills, lack of confidence, cost of equipment and service and no or slow internet access.[107] In Scotland, particularly in rural areas, speed and connection can be a barrier to home working. This was raised by a respondent from the free-text survey:

"Parts of rural Scotland suffer from no mobile signal and abysmal broadband (0.48 mbps is common here) which makes working from home impossible. Thought should be given to the creation of village hubs using village halls with satellite telephone and broadband being provided." (Male 65-69)

The Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, (a monthly survey of between 2,500 to 5,000 US residents aged between 20 and 64) was founded in 2020 in response to the impact of COVID-19 on working arrangements. One of their projects explored the link between employees' internet access and their self-reported efficiency. Those with internet access that worked all the time, felt they were more efficient while working from home, than those with a less reliable connection.[108] The authors of this study give consideration to the idea of universal, high quality, reliable home internet and the benefits it could bring in terms of productivity but also the social benefits of universal access in a pandemic.

Data from 29 European countries (with the majority from Denmark) on the experiences of employees working from home, during the early stages of the first lockdown (March-May 2020), indicated that two of the main interrelated disadvantages were 'home-office constraints' and 'inadequate tools'. [109] In summary, this related to an unsatisfactory physical working environment (for example, not having an adjustable chair, poor lighting, noise) and not having the required data or documents to be able to work. Of note, participants who described themselves as a manager were less likely to report having 'inadequate tools' than other professional groups.

Having a dedicated or uninterrupted workspace in the home environment can play an important part in developing a healthy work life balance and, as discussed, help to maintain a boundary between home and work.[110] Some respondents in the free-text survey raised the issue of space, highlighting how living and working in a small home was challenging:

"Working from home is increasingly difficult in a small house with two of us working from home. How many homes have quiet spaces for everyone? Again, a rule that favours the wealthy." (Female, 35-44)

"Most houses are not big or spacious enough for multiple people to have space and quiet to work." (Non-Binary, 35-44)

As brought to attention in the above quotes, the risk is that the opportunity to work from home will benefit workers with quiet and dedicated spaces to work over those who do not have such facilities. This may worsen long-standing inequalities, with younger workers or low paid workers less likely to live in larger homes with dedicated or quiet spaces to work in.[111]

Supplementing this, analysis conducted by ONS in 2020 from a survey with individuals in the UK, found that employees who earn higher annual wages are more likely to be able to work from home. Analysis conducted in April 2022 found that high earners are also more likely to hybrid work. In contrast, lower earners and workers aged between 16-29 years were least likely to report hybrid working.[112]

Considering the association between home and work life, a global study of 12,000 workers, from across 11 countries (including the UK) carried out in 2020 showed that 89% of those aged 22 to 25 said the pandemic had negatively impacted on their mental health. This compared to 62% of those aged 55 to 74.[113]

What next?

This report points to some key interrelated topics, such as: work-life balance, autonomy and flexibility, productivity, personal/work boundaries and social interaction that should form the starting point for further research and discussion. It will be important to understand if and how these factors change over time and what the associated implications are for employees and employers.

There is evidence that some employees value the opportunity to work from home and there are clear preferences for hybrid working in the future.[114] The overall proportion of businesses using or planning to use increased homeworking as a permanent business model has increased from 2020 to April 2022, although there are variations by sector.[115] As many employers are now developing new policies to facilitate flexible and hybrid working, including the Scottish Government, this report highlights the continued need to consider the factors that impact on people's home working experiences.

In terms of future research questions and analysis, it is recommended that there is a deeper analysis into the various different benefits and disadvantages that are created, through different models of hybrid working. In particular, analysis that gives consideration to employees' experiences across the life course. For example, those who started their first job during the pandemic in comparison to those who are further into their career. Thought should also be given to what considerations or innovations should be made by employers to support employees and mitigate the identified challenges and risks.

This report focuses on employees. Future work that examines the employers' perspective (of different sized organisations and across different sectors) to gain an understanding into their perceptions of the benefits and challenges and their long-term expectations for home, hybrid and office based working will also be valuable.



Back to top