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The future of flexible work

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Research and reports
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Changes brought about by the pandemic Unequal access

Unequal access to flexible work during the pandemic 

In March 2020, the UK Government and devolved administrations introduced legislation and accompanying guidance to impose lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. People were prohibited from going to work unless they were unable to work from home. These rules were relaxed over the summer, but strict national lockdowns were re-introduced in December 2020. In February the UK government published plans for relaxing lockdown rules with 21 June 2021 identified as the date when home working guidance would cease. Following an announcement on 14 June the home working guidance will be in place until 19 July 2021.   

The overnight shift to enforced home working led to many people working from home for the first time. However, although home working has been one of the dominant narratives of the pandemic it is by no means the experience of all or even a majority of workers. Estimates of the percentage of workers who worked from home during the pandemic vary, but never go above half. ONS analysis based on the Annual Population Survey shows that 36 per cent of those in employment did some work at home in 2020[1]. Other analysis suggests this may have been higher, but never the majority. Experimental analysis from the ONS suggested that almost half (47 per cent) of people in employment worked from home in April 2020[2].

Home working varies significantly by age, region and income level. The same ONS data[3] from April 2020 mentioned above showed that young workers (people aged 16 to 24 years) were the least likely to do any work from home (30 per cent) and the ability to work from home is spread unequally across the country. Workers in London (57 per cent) were more likely than those in other regions, for example the West Midlands (35 per cent), to have done some work from home.  Further analysis from ONS shows the percentage of workers in some areas was considerably lower, for example only 19 per cent of workers in Wolverhampton did any work from home in 2020[4].  

Ability to work from home also varies significantly by sector, with 62 per cent of workers in the information and communication industry working from home in 2020, compared to 19 per cent of transport and storage workers. Workers in the highest paid industries were the most likely to work from home[5].  This is in contrast to key workers who mainly worked outside the home during the pandemic. Four out of ten of these workers earn less than £10 per hour[6].

The story of those working from home during the pandemic is therefore likely to reflect the experiences of older, high-income workers and those based in the South East.

What types of flexible working do workers want? 

The number of people working from home in the future is expected to rise following the coronavirus pandemic and some employers are already indicating they intend to move to hybrid working, where workers split their time between working at home and in an external workplace. An ONS business insights dataset from May 202[7] revealed that 23 per cent of business intend to use increased homeworking as a permanent business model going forward, rising to 49 per cent in the Information and Communication sector, 43 per cent in Professional, Scientific and Technical Activities and 38 per cent in Education. 

To better understand workers’ future preferences, the TUC commissioned a survey exploring what types of location and hours based flexible working people wanted in the future. This polling covers both those who worked from home during the pandemic and those who didn’t[8]. It is worth noting that our polling has been done at a unique point in time, as restrictions due to the pandemic are lifted. Views expressed now may not reflect how people have felt throughout the pandemic and as the external context changes in the future, people’s preferences may change as well.  

Our research shows there is a real appetite for flexible working after the pandemic comes to an end. More than four out of five (82 per cent) workers in Britain want to work flexibly in the future, rising to 87 per cent amongst women workers.  

We asked respondents for their preference on both hours and location of work. More than nine out of ten of those who worked from home during the pandemic want to spend at least some of the time working remotely in the future. More than three in five want to spend the majority of their time working from home, with only one in 25 (4 per cent) of those who worked from home during the pandemic preferring to work from an external workplace full time (see graph 1).

Graph 1 Preference for future work location among those who worked from home during the pandemic. 
Graph 1 Preference for future work location among those who worked from home during the pandemic. 

The preferences of younger workers did not differ greatly from other age groups. Over half (58 per cent) of all 18 to 34 year olds who worked from during the pandemic would like to spend the majority of their time working home and almost nine in ten (88 per cent) would like to spend some of the time working remotely. ONS analysis published in June 2021 showed that young workers (16 to 29 year olds) were less likely to report an overall positive experience of homeworking than older workers. However, overall younger workers identified improved wellbeing and improved work-life balance as advantages of homeworking[9].  

Although home working during the pandemic has been unequally distributed across the country, respondents in the North and Midlands who worked from home during the pandemic were slightly more likely (94 per cent) to want to spend some time working remotely in the future. 

Our research shows differences between those from different class backgrounds, with respondents in higher-paid occupations[10] more likely to have worked from home during the pandemic (60 per cent compared to 23 per cent of respondents in working-class occupations). However, of respondents in working-class occupations who did work from home during the pandemic almost six in ten (59 per cent) want to spend the majority of their time from home in the future and eight in ten (83 per cent) want some time working remotely in the future.  

We know many people in working-class occupations, young workers and key workers will not have the opportunity to work from home. Therefore, access to flexible working must include hours based flexibility, including predictable hours, as well as location.  

Respondents were also asked to choose their ideal working hours after the Covid-19 pandemic with the options including part-time work, flexi-time, annualised hours, compressed hours, job shares and mutually agreed predictable hours. Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of all respondents want some form of flexibility in hours in the future. Around one quarter (24 per cent) said they would like to work full time fixed working hours. 

Graph 2 Ideal work pattern in the future, by all respondents   
Graph 2 Ideal work pattern in the future, by all respondents   

Women were more likely to want hours-based flexibility, with seven out of ten women (72 per cent) wanting some form of flexibility in the hours they worked after the pandemic.  

Both those who worked from home and from an external workplace during the pandemic want flexibility in hours. Of those who worked from an external workplace during the pandemic, six out of ten (60 per cent) want flexibility in their hours in the future, rising to 69 per cent amongst women workers. Of those who worked from home during the pandemic, around seven out of ten (71 per cent) want flexibility in hours, demonstrating a desire for both location and hours based flexibility.  

The most popular form of flexibility in working hours for women and respondents in higher-paid occupations was flexi-time (23 per cent of women and 28 per cent of workers in higher-paid occupations selected this as their ideal working pattern). However, part-time working was the most popular option for older workers (55 years old and over, 24 per cent chose part-time), and the second most popular after traditional hours for both respondents in working-class occupations (18 per cent) and for those who did not work from home during the pandemic (16 per cent).  

One in ten (9 per cent) of our respondents chose mutually agreed, predictable hours as their ideal working pattern after the pandemic, rising to one in eight (13 per cent) for respondents in working-class occupations.  

Many women are faced with an impossible situation in looking to balance the need to earn a living and care for their children. All too often they are faced with a lose-lose situation. A choice between a job that lacks basic rights like sick pay, without guaranteed hours and a job with basic rights but no access to flexible working that is therefore impossible to take up because of your caring commitments, is no choice at all.  We know women, particularly BME women are over represented in insecure work. Recent research by the TUC shows that almost half of BME workers polled (45 per cent) have had shifts cancelled with less than a day to go, making it impossible to plan for childcare[11]

Flexible working must be the default for all jobs to avoid forcing people, all too often women, into insecure and low paid work. 

Whilst experiences during the pandemic have shown that people can work effectively from home, enforced home working is not the same as genuine flexibility. During the pandemic many working people also had to juggle childcare and home schooling with paid work, had to shift to work from home without notice or the necessary equipment and have coped with the mental health impacts of isolation, confinement and bereavement. Despite these extremely challenging conditions, many of those who have experienced home working during the pandemic want to continue with it in the future. 

Risk of a two-tier workforce  

However, the rise in enforced home working has not been mirrored in access to other forms of flexibility with data showing a drop in all other forms of flexible working arrangements since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic[12]

In order to better understand whether this trend might continue after the pandemic the TUC commissioned a survey of HR decision makers at private sector companies[13]. The survey found that around two thirds (67 per cent) of employers surveyed with staff currently able to work from home are expecting to offer those staff the opportunity to work from home when the pandemic ends.  

While this is positive, working from home is not the only form of flexible working, and as seen above, not the only form of flexible working that people want or can access. Worryingly our survey revealed that those who are not currently able to work from home due to the nature of their job are less likely to be offered any form of flexible working when the pandemic ends.  

Overall, one in six (16 per cent) of employers surveyed said that after the pandemic, they will not offer flexible working opportunities to staff who could not work from home during the pandemic. This compares to one in sixteen (6 per cent) saying they will not offer flexible working opportunities to those who did work from home in the pandemic.

Not only are those who are currently able to work from home more likely to be offered home working after the pandemic, the survey also suggested they are also more likely to be offered other forms of flexibility such as flexitime, part-time working and compressed hours. 

Those who can't work from home are three times more likely to not be offered any form of flexible working after the pandemic, with 25 per cent of employers surveyed with staff who can’t work from home due to the nature of their work saying they’re not expecting to offer any form of flexible working to such staff after the pandemic ends. In contrast, just 8 per cent of employers with staff that can work from home expect not to offer these staff any form of flexible working. 

Graph 3 Percentage of private sector employers planning to offer flexible working, by work from home status. 
Graph 3 Percentage of private sector employers planning to offer flexible working, by work from home status. 

This risks creating a two-tier workforce with those who have worked from home during the pandemic receiving increasing access to flexible working, whereas those whose jobs do not offer the possibility of working from home being increasingly denied flexible working opportunities. The latter group is more likely to include key workers, those in lower paid occupations, younger workers and those outside of London and the South East. 

Comparing our two sets of polling also demonstrates that employers’ intentions on who they will offer flexible working hours to, goes against what workers actually want. Both those who have worked from home and those who haven’t want access to flexible working. 

Our recovery from the pandemic must include strengthening the rights to access all forms of flexible working. A sole focus on home working rights would create new inequalities for those who cannot easily work from home and deepen the inequalities caused by the pandemic. 


[1] Homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities in the UK: 2011 to 2020, ONS (2021). The analysis is based on the Annual Population Survey, which did not change its questions on homeworking in response to the pandemic. Available at:

[8] An online survey was sent to members of the YouGov Plc UK panel of 800,000+ individuals who have agreed to take part in surveys. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21 - 24 May 2021. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). The profile is normally derived from census data or, if not available from the census, from industry accepted data. The total sample size was 2052 adults and questions aimed to find out people's preferences for how, when and where they would like to work in the future. Questions regarding where people worked during the pandemic, their ideal work location in the future and their ideal work pattern in the future based on a sample size of 1102.

[10] Respondents in higher paid occupations is defined as those from ABC1social group and respondents in working-class occupations are those from C2DE social group. Definitions of social groups can be found here:


[13] The TUC commissioned YouGov to carry out an online survey of HR decision maker between 4 and 15 May 2021. The total sample size was 1002 HR decision makers and questions aimed to find out their plans for offering flexible work options to employees in the future. Question regarding employers with staff currently able to work from home-based on a sample of 744 HR decision makers. Question regarding employers with staff currently unable to work from home-based on a sample of 649 HR decision makers.   


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