The truth behind the big hybrid working backlash

It’s six months since Never Going Back – how Covid-19 changed work for good was published.  Our book forecast that the world of work would be changed forever by the response to the pandemic.  What’s more we argued that the shift to home working would be a good thing for not just bosses and workers but also for our wider communities and the environment. As reported in the book back then it was a view widely shared by many politicians, employers’ organisations and trade unions.

Now, as we emerge from the pandemic and the world returns to somewhere near normal it feels that all has changed.  Never mind Never Going Back – the home working push back has begun and the backlash against it, particularly on the political right, seems here to stay.  Take Boris Johnson’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month:

“As we come out of Covid our towns and cities are going to be buzzing with life because we know that a productive workforce needs the spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip. If young people are to learn on the job in the way that they always have and must, we will and must, see people back in the office.”

The Tory faithful reserved one of the biggest ovations for that sentiment. The day before party chairman Oliver Dowden made headlines attacking his former under-secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Sarah Healey for her widely quoted comments about enjoying hybrid working as it enabled her to use her Peloton exercise bike more often

What is driving this backlash and have those who criticise hybrid working got a point? To help answer that question let’s look at some of the key findings from ONS research on hybrid working [i].

  • Employees who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees.
  • Employees who mainly worked from home were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared with those who never worked from home.
  • People who completed any work from home did 6 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week in 2020, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never work from home.
  • Homeworkers were more likely to work in the evenings compared with those who worked away from home.
  • The sickness absence rate for workers doing any work from home was 0.9% on compared with 2.2% for those who never worked from home in their main job.

At face value these represent a concerning set of statistics seemingly implying that employers see home workers as less worthy of advancement despite their better attendance records and willingness to work long hours.  Is this a result of poorer performance by home workers or has it perhaps got something to do with the networking opportunities afforded to those by face-to-face contact or is it simply that bosses are prejudiced against those who choose home working? 

What really should count, of course, is productivity and yet evidence on the impact on productivity from greater working from home is far from clear.  A reduced commute, fewer workplace distractions and lower rates of absenteeism are often cited as reasons why someone who works from home may be more productive than those who work away from home. However, increased opportunity for shirking due to a lack of supervision and the intrusion of home responsibilities, such as caring, may contribute to a productivity penalty associated with working from home. 

Of the limited research on the productivity impacts of homeworking, Bloom et al. [ii] is the most widely reported. This study found a positive effect of working from home on hours worked, employee productivity and retention.  Dutcher (2012) [iii] also found positive effects of working from home on productivity, but only for more engaging creative tasks. In more recent research Bloom et al. (2021) [iv] found better than expected experiences of homeworking, reduced stigma, and adaptation by businesses.

Data from the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) [v] suggests that some industries have had a much more positive experience of homeworking in 2020 than others. Surveys in early 2021 suggested that increased homeworking had been negative for productivity in around a third of businesses, positive in around 10%, and the remainder saw no change. However, in some industries such as information and communication, the picture was typically more positive. Similarly data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also finds a mixed picture. They find a roughly similar proportion of organisations saw increases in productivity as decreases with many in the middle.

Bearing in mind that for many employers and employees home working is a new phenomenon these studies are relatively encouraging to those of us who support hybrid working.  The truth is that productivity has held up in a great many workplaces despite the disruption and challenges of the pandemic and the lockdowns.  It is our contention, therefore, that the hybrid working backlash is not driven by any perceived or indeed real fall in productivity.  Instead it is partly based on humanity’s innate desire to get back to what we perceive as normal life.  This feeling has been exacerbated by the sense that the country is no longer working as efficiently with the recent and predicted energy, food, fuel shortages being one example.

Most commentators agree, though, that these have been primarily caused by the post-Covid recovery and Brexit challenges.  Additionally we would argue those organisations perceived to be providing the poorest service are often from the public sector where levels of hybrid working are amongst the highest. We believe that these failings are more likely to do with the poor customer service culture that has been ushered in by the excuse of Covid-19 and the lockdowns.

It is our belief that this backlash will be short-lived and that bosses and workers will continue to prosper while working from home.  Furthermore with Covid-19 still in our midst and the increasing focus on the environment with COP 26 just weeks away the impact of flexible working on both the health of the people and the planet will see more focus on the benefits than the perceived drawbacks of hybrid working.  We’re still saying Never Going Back!

  • [i] ONS, Homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities in the UK: 2011 to 2020 (April 2021
  • [ii] Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment, Nicholas Bloom, James Liang, John Roberts, Zhichun Jenny Ying (2015)
  • [iii] The effects of telecommuting on productivity: An experimental examination. The role of dull and creative tasks, E.Dutcher (2012)
  • [iv] Why working from home will stick, Jose Maria Barrero Nicholas Bloom Steven J. Davis (April 2021)
  • [v] ONS, Business insights and impact on the UK economy, BICS (8 April 2021)

Published by Never Going Back Book

Dad, husband, brother and son. Interested in travel, politics, sport, health and much more. Semi-retired and aiming to making the most of life as I approach my sixth decade.

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