July 13, 2020

Attitudes Towards Homeworking

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced many people into working from home. This is a new experience for many and perhaps a very welcome experience for most. For many years now employees have been asking to work from home 1 or 2 days a week to improve worklife balance and as an HR Practitioner of over 20 years I can honestly say that in far too many cases employers are still looking for ways to lawfully decline these requests.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the number of people that mainly work from their own home increased from 3.4% in 2015 to 5.1% in 2019. This suggests that attitudes have started to change but incredibly slowly. Of course, some type of work cannot be done from the employee’s home but where it is possible to do so, and the employee desires it, should employers be encouraging it or remain firm that work is work and so the place of work should be the employer’s location?

This is a subject hotly debated during Level 5 and Level 7 CIPD HRM qualification workshops and learners are asked to share their experience of the reasons why employees want to work from home and the reasons why employers (largely) look for ways to say no. By the end of these sessions it becomes clear that there are many benefits to both the business and their employee so it remains quite a mystery why some employers are so reluctant to agree to it, let alone encourage it.

There are 2 types of requests for working from home. 1) a request made under the Statutory Right to Request Flexible Working; and 2) a more general request perhaps under a workplace policy (if there is one) or because of personal circumstances/preferences.

If the request was a statutory request then the employer must give careful consideration of it and there are limited grounds on which a request can be denied. There is also a right to appeal the outcome. More generally though, employers do not necessarily have to consider the request unless they have an internal policy so are not breaching any laws or doing anything wrong by immediately saying no.

The reasons given for rejecting a request to work from home have often been in relation to it not being possible to set the employee up at home, concerns over IT capability, data protection, the ability to speak to the homeworker and trust in the homeworker being productive during the hours worked from home. Many of these reasons have been rigorously tested during the current pandemic where government advice has been that employees should work from home if they can. I am really interested to see how employers will be able to justify putting forward the types of reasons previously given when experience shows us that these have been successfully overcome during 2020.

ONS reports that the percentage of people working from home in June jumped to 41% (Source: Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module), 18 to 21 June). It has intrigued me to find out what the current attitude is towards homeworking now that more businesses have been forced into adopting this as a new norm. To find out, I carried out some research of my own this month and was quite excited to analyse the results.

A survey went out into the HR community with a few simple short questions starting with the fundamental question about leadership attitudes towards homeworking in the business where they work. A whopping 80% of respondents stated that the leadership team either enthusiastically supported homeworking or was open to trying it out. This surprised me given that only a few months ago the ONS study revealed only 5.1% mainly work from home. This increases to just below 12% of staff stating they had worked at home in the week prior to the survey (in 2019) and 30% of staff who declared that they ‘had ever worked from home’.

Of the 20% that replied to my survey whose organisations did not support working from home, the top reason given was lack of trust that employees would work their full contractual hours followed by a belief that performance and productivity would suffer.

When  asked to think about the impact on performance of the employees that do work from home almost 60% of respondents stated that productivity and performance neither improved nor declined and over 33% stated there was a noticeable improvement in performance and productivity.

When asked about the practicalities of managing staff that work from home 47% of respondents stated that most line managers find it somewhat more difficult but not enough to worry about and almost 30% stated that most line managers are confident home working does not have a negative impact on the ability to manage them.

These two results in particular are contrary to the reasons given that senior leaders are nervous of encouraging home working.

Furthermore, when asked about the employee wellbeing of employees that work from home, the survey in the HR community found that almost 60% of respondents declared employees are happier and have reduced sickness absence and over 17% said there was no noticeable change. This is compelling evidence that for most employees it is a positive contribution towards wellbeing with almost 75% stating it improved their work life balance.

The interesting fact that this study revealed is that 13.73% of respondents declared employees show signs of stress and anxiety when working from home. A Gallop study conducted in 2019 revealed that 21% of people surveyed stated that “loneliness was the biggest struggle to homeworking”. Research conducted by Nuffield Health published in a Whitepaper in November 2019 found  “working remotely for up to two and a half days per week has positive impacts on wellbeing, however three days or more can cause a deterioration in the quality of co-worker relationships”.

The relationships that we have with our colleagues is incredibly important so it is essential that we understand more about what contributes towards employees feeling increased stress and anxiety as we move forward to a culture, post COVID-19, of increased flexible working.

I will be conducting more studies on this so keep an eye out for more to come on this issue.

Theresa Mayne – DPG online CIPD course facilitator and HR subject matter expert.