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Homeworking in a global pandemic

15 December 2020

Mother and daughters in homeworking and homeschooling scenario

The impact of homeworking during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was the focus of the latest in Cardiff Business School’s Breakfast Briefing Series.

Led by Professor Alan Felstead, from Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, and Professor Jonathan Morris, from Cardiff Business School, the event shared both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective on the issues.

Getting proceedings underway, Professor Felstead contextualised his expertise on homeworking, which he has been researching since the mid-1990s, before sharing findings from his latest report, co-authored by Dr Darja Reuschke, from the University of Southampton.

Professor Felstead showed how homeworking has grown before, during and since the first lockdown in March 2020.

Drawing on data from Labour Force Surveys 1981-2019 and the Understanding Society COVID-19 Study, Professor Felstead evidenced a significant rise in homeworking prompted by the UK national lockdown; it rose from 6% at the beginning of 2020 to 43% in April.

“Furthermore, the prevalence of home working has remained high in the months and weeks after the national lockdown ended,” said Professor Felstead.

“Employer surveys also reveal a similar pattern,” he added.

“A recent ONS study of 5,500 employers found over a quarter were using homeworking as a direct consequence of COVID 19 and just under a fifth of employers said they would continue to use homeworking after the pandemic has passed.”

Professor Alan Felstead Research Professor

Detailing some of the types of employees affected by this shift towards homeworking, Professor Felstead noted that the most privileged members of the labour market are now working at home.

He stressed that the concept of privilege referred to the jobs people do, not the type of people they are: “So, growth was high among skilled jobs. It was far lower among lesser skilled roles. Home working also grew more quickly among prosperous areas of the UK, and those working outside of the home were consistently among the lower paid.

“However, the prevalence of working at home in lockdown did not vary by sex, ethnicity, or disability,” he added.

Professor Felstead concluded his presentation by exploring the effects of homeworking on productivity.

He showed that while employees might not learn from one another through the isolation of homeworking and perhaps innovation and team working would be similarly stifled, the data so far shows productivity has not been adversely affected.

Complementing the facts and figures shared by Professor Felstead, Professor Jonathan Morris spent the remainder of the breakfast briefing describing his qualitative research on the lived experience of homeworking during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

He too contextualised his longstanding research interest in homeworking stretching back to the early noughties when he interviewed mangers from over 30 organisations across the UK, USA and Japan which were undergoing fundamental changes and re-engineering to agile structures.

Three people on Zoom call
Professors Jonathan Morris and Alan Felstead in conversation with Sarah Lethbridge.

Professor Morris summarised his findings from two studies in the years 2000 and 2019, which traced the emergence and subsequent pervasiveness of sophisticated digital technology.

Commenting on this shift in perspective, Professor Morris said: “A big difference we found was whereas managers in the first study welcomed the flexibility that home working gave them, the difference this time was the ubiquity and pervasiveness of sophisticated digital technology and the smartphone.

“Managers complained that they found it difficult to escape work because they were always on‑call and their work and non‑work divides were very blurred.”

When lockdown measures were introduced, as a way of minimising the spread of coronavirus in March 2020, Professor Morris once again reached out to his study contacts to find out more about their experiences of homeworking under significantly different socioeconomic circumstances.

This time he issued a questionnaire to 56 managers of different ages and genders across 7 organisations in service and manufacturing settings and representing high tech and low tech too.

Among the advantages of home working, Professor Morris found that managers valued:

  • the lack of commute.
  • not having to travel for work.
  • the abolition of presenteeism.
  • opportunities to enjoy a greater work-life balance.

Conversely, managers expressed disadvantages in:

  • the blurring of work and non-work divides.
  • being isolated.
  • ‘switching off’.
  • monotony.
  • Zoom/meeting fatigue.
  • childcare and home-schooling – particularly among female respondents.

Moving away from individual perspectives, Professor Morris highlighted some of the organisational challenges associated with homeworking.

Despite obvious cost base savings on organisational expenditures on energy and some even downsizing office space long-term, managers reported fears of control. Some shared anxieties over staff ‘shirking from home’, difficulties communicating effectively and learning from and with one another were also noted.

Admitting that the research accounts were pessimistic in some ways, Professor Morris concluded on a note of optimism.

“I think there will be positive environmental outcomes resulting from a lack of people commuting. And there's also the potential for levelling up and rejuvenating communities. Another positive outcome and reported by the managers in our study is how personally liberating it’s been to stay at home and spend more time with our families.”

Professor Jonathan Morris Professor of Organisational Analysis

“Finally, as Alan has said, I think we will see an emergence of a hybrid model of work – some office work which enables people to learn and develop, alongside home working and even communal or third space, too.”

A question-and-answer session followed the presentations with a variety of topics covered, including psychology and mental health, geography, digital access and inclusion, socioeconomic inequalities, housing and third spaces.

Cardiff Business School's Breakfast Briefing Series is a network of events which enables business contacts to find out more about the latest research and key developments from industrial partners.

Following lockdown measures, implemented by Welsh Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the School’s Executive Education Team has moved the series online.

If you were unable to attend, watch this recording of the event.

This event was delivered in partnership with the PrOPEL Hub - a major new initiative designed to support improvements in productivity through enhanced workplace practice and employee engagement.

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