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Working from home is on the rise - but why so slow?

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Employee homeworking has gone up during the past decade, but we're still a long way from positive flexible working.
  • New TUC research to mark Work Wise UK’s National Work from Home Day shows employee homeworking has increased during the past decade.
  • There are 373 thousand more employees working from home than 10 years ago, a 27% increase.
  • But not enough bosses are giving their workers the option of homeworking – even though it could help people to see more of their family and improve their work-life balance.

We have the best educated population that we have ever seen. They are particularly adept at using computers and mobiles. Most younger people starting work have been used to independent study and working to deadlines.

Yet far too many employers still rely on a factory-style model, managing by attendance, even when it’s a poor fit.

They are missing a trick. We estimate that 4 million more people want to work from home at least some of the time but aren’t given the chance.

Lack of sufficient trust in employees is bound to have a negative impact on motivation and morale.

This bites even more when the jobs market is tight. With employment rates at record levels employers need to focus on attracting and keeping good people. Offering well-organised homeworking for those who want it would help many employers as well as staff.

What is holding back homeworking?

In many cases its simply outmoded managerial attitudes.

The General Data Protection Regulation is also sometimes cited by employers, but this can be easily dealt with by taking simple common-sense measures.

There are some other constraints that are the responsibility of government.

Lack of access to fast and reliable broadband is still a problem in parts of the UK

The decline of home ownership – down by more than a million since the crash – is also a factor. People who own their property are 73% more likely to work from home than renters.

Why do more workers want to work from home?

Some people like to work without distractions. That’s fine, as long as employers take proper care to make sure that they are still plugged into the broader culture at work.

Working from home cuts out the commute, which can often be stressful, expensive and time-consuming.

Some homeworkers need to juggle working time with caring duties.

And just over a million people with a disability work from home.

Age, gender and ethnicity should not be hidden reasons for denying homeworking

There are some disturbing patterns in who gets access to homeworking:

  • Older workers are much more likely to work from home, with 7.5% of 40-59-year olds homeworking but only 3.4% 20-29-year olds.
  • Given the traditional breakdown of roles we might expect women to dominate homeworking. In fact, there are still almost twice as many men as women homeworkers (1,062,000 men, 659,000 women).
  • People from a BME background are also much less likely to get homeworking - just 4.3% of BME employees compared with 6.5% of white workers.

Clearly there is something in the structure of decision making that leads to white men doing better than other groups when it comes to homeworking.

The likely culprit is that decisions are disproportionately made in the basis of employment status. Thus, managers are nearly twice as likely to work at home compared with the average employee, with nearly 1 in 8 doing so (11.9%).

Yet administrative workers have a slightly below average chance of working from home (5.2%), even though their work is now largely computer-based and is no longer tied closely to the office. Worst of all, only 1.7% of “elementary” jobs are currently homeworking.

Not every job can be done from home, but employers need to stop saying “no” to so many of those that can.

What needs to happen

The TUC is calling for strengthened rights to flexible working from day one. Employers would benefit from giving more workers what they want when it comes to flexibility, but not enough are choosing to do it so far,

In many cases, homeworking is a win-win-win. Workers get more time with their families, employers can boost productivity and hang on to experienced staff, and the environment benefits as well.

But too many employers are clinging to tradition, or don’t trust their staff enough to encourage homeworking. They need to catch up.

Unions can help negotiate homeworking policies that work positively for both employers and staff. And government should be investing in broadband infrastructure so that every worker can get a high-speed connection at home.

This blog was originally published on the Work Wise UK guest blog.