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)

Don’t go back

Yet another report has pointed out that working from home increases productivity. In a recent article (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/work-form-home-hybrid-working-covid-pandemic-us-office/) the World Economic Forum has pointed to research in the USA showing that a hybrid workforce is likely to increase productivity by 4.6%. Fewer than 30 percent of the sample surveyed said they will return fully to pre-COVID activities and over 30 percent said they would like to continue to work from home five days a week.

This just adds to the mounting evidence that those people who have enjoyed the benefits of working from home will not willingly return to full-time commuting. If their employer insists they return to the office against their will then there is a good chance they will think of moving to a more flexible working environment. They will be able to look further afield for interesting jobs if they don’t have to travel in every day.

A poll of 1,000 UK workers, conducted by EY as part of its 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey, found that four in five wanted flexibility where they worked, and 47 percent went as far as to say they would consider changing their jobs if flexible working wasn’t an option. It’s a very a short-sighted employer who ignores the evidence and insists people return to the office.

More than half of employers expect to receive more flexible working requests as the UK comes out of the pandemic according to ACAS.  YouGov polled more than 2,000 senior decision makers in UK companies on their behalf and found 55 per cent expected an increase in the number of staff working remotely for part of the week. Half of those polled (49 per cent) said they expected more staff to work remotely all week.

Staff have had a taste of freedom and don’t see why they should go back to the old way of working. They may also be worried about potential exposure to Covid-19 as case numbers rise. They won’t want to commute on crowded public transport to get to work. If the employer insists, it’s likely to end up with a claim for unfair dismissal.

The future has to be hybrid. Some people can work well from home, others need to get out of the house. Some jobs can be done remotely, others need personal contact. Technology can help with communications but it has its limitations. We need managers who are prepared to trust their people and give them a choice in how they work. We are never going back to pre-pandemic working patterns.

Will July 19 be Freedom Day for workers?

At this week’s Covid-19 press briefing the Prime Minister confirmed the Government will no longer ask employees to work from home “if possible”.   While he said the change would enable employers to “start planning a safe return to the workplace”, he stopped short of urging people to head back to the office.  Instead, bosses will be given discretion over whether their employees should return to the office, with Johnson telling the Downing Street press conference: “The rest is really for employers and employees to work out for themselves.”  This is a much more equivocal position than the stance the government were taking this time last year when the first lockdown restrictions were being lifted.

Back then Boris Johnson told office workers to start returning to their desks to help save the British economy.  He and, chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak were said to be aghast at the impact empty offices were having on town centre shops and restaurants. They worried that widespread homeworking was wrecking Britain’s productivity.  Johnson also told Whitehall chiefs to set an example by starting to return civil servants to their desks saying, that it was “more efficient and productive” than working from home.  “I know there are logistical difficulties but we have got to get back to our desks if we can,” he said. “I do hope, in the words of Vera Lynn, we will meet again and get everybody back together. The faster we can get back to the status quo the better.”

Caution around Covid-19 partially explains the change in emphasis but more than that, I would argue, there is an acceptance that the world of work has changed for good.  This is exactly what Never Going Back – How Covid-19 changed for work , forecast and it’s good to see our leading politicians belatedly catching up with the public mood.

The book argues that, thanks to Covid-19, work and life will never be the same again and that though the pandemic has brought widespread misery, something good, a new order in the world of work, will emerge. The book looks at how our long-term physical and mental health is being impacted and how our homes, communities and our planet will be all the better for Covid-19.  Overall it makes the case, now heeded by government, for the UK to push forward not back; to embrace these changes and build a more productive, greener, cleaner, healthier and happier society.

Unlike the legal underpinnings around some of the other measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and the rule of six, working from home if possible was always advisory, so what difference will the change in emphasis make?  Many believe employers will face a battle to get more people back into offices despite Boris Johnson lifting the work from home guidance and unions are now demanding a legal right to flexible working for every employee.

However, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, called on the Government to consult with employers and unions on the updated workplace safety guidance to avoid “widespread confusion”.  Cautioning bosses against issuing blanket requests for their workers to return to the office, she added: “As the work from home guidance ends, employers must acknowledge that one size does not fit all.  They should consult their staff and unions about continuing flexibility in working patterns and location.  Flexible working isn’t just about working at home. It can mean having predictable or fixed hours, working as a job-share, or working flexitime, term-time only hours or compressed hours.  No one should miss out on flexible working. Ministers must bring in a new right to flexible working for every worker, in every job. Otherwise there will be a new class divide between those who can work flexibly from home, and those who can’t.”

Ministers are currently exploring whether employees should be given the right to request flexible working arrangements as the “default” option, unless their bosses provide a “good reason” not to.  This will not extend to a legal right to work from home, however, with Downing Street previously making clear there are “clear benefits to be gained from people working in the office”.  It came as bosses at John Lewis and Waitrose confirmed they will introduce flexible working for staff at the retailer’s head offices.   Andrew Murphy, executive director of operations for the John Lewis Partnership, said that the “pandemic has forced us all to rethink the norm of five days in an office.” John Lewis joins a long list of other businesses that have introduced flexible working for staff, including Asda, which announced staff will be able to work from any location best suited to their job. 

According to the findings of the Government’s social distancing review, published earlier this week, working from home has reduced the likelihood of people testing positive for Covid-19.  However, it found that the socio-economic impact had been “complex”, with levels of productivity varying sector by sector, improving in some while falling in others.  While some firms reported happier workforces and reduced overheads, others said it had hampered the exchange of ideas, stifled creativity and hindered collaboration.   

While government advises and employers decide the new work pattern in these coming weeks, ultimately it will be the workers who will determine the future.  We believe humanity is tantalisingly close to realising the dream of many – a world where more and more of us can choose how, when and where we work.  In recent decades when technology first brought that goal within reach we chose instead money and materialism, to work harder, to get more.  Now as a result of this unprecedented time for modern humanity, this collective groupthink of lockdown, this pause of the populous, we are making a different choice.  The great irony is that having being given more time to ourselves and with our family, what we want, more than anything else, is more time.  Having left behind the habitual existence of commute, work, sleep, repeat we can no longer countenance going back there.  Never Going Back.

Case Study – West Midlands Combined Authority

  1. Mayor: Andy Street
  2. Political: Conservative-controlled
  3. Location: Summer Lane, Birmingham
  4. Key Facts: 18 local authorities and three local enterprise partnerships covering Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Transport infrastructure will be critical to the West Midlands economic recovery post-Covid-19, according to Mayor Andy Street. “Despite the pandemic, good progress has been on our ambitious 20-year vision of how our towns and cities will need to be linked in the coming decades.  Our 2040 Transport Plan envisages 150 miles of new Metro lines, calls to reopen long-closed railway stations, as well as pioneering ‘Very Light Rail’ technology and driverless vehicles.”

In central Birmingham, the ‘Westside’ Metro extension from Centenary Square to Edgbaston village is set to open in late 2021 and work has started in Digbeth on the ‘Eastside’ line, which will take the Metro through to link with HS2 at the new Curzon Street station.

A key component of the plan though is to “level up” the West Midlands with the focus going beyond the Second City. Two of the largest projects are brand new stations for Coventry and Wolverhampton which are progressing fast.

Elsewhere on the railways, progress on plans to work with Government and local councils to reverse the Beeching cuts and reopen long-closed stations has been made. Planning permission has been secured for five new stations – including in the heart of the Black Country in Darlaston and Willenhall.

There are also plans for many more stations including in Wolverhampton, three more in Coventry and at the Fort and Castle Bromwich in North Birmingham.  The Metro section of the plan is also progressing at pace with diggers in the ground, laying track.

Huge progress has also been made on the bus network, which remains the backbone of public transport. The bus fleet has been continually improved, with new vehicles and cutting edge technology. In the Spring of 2021, 20 new hydrogen buses, which consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank, will be introduced in Birmingham.

Coventry has been selected to develop a business case to switch the entire city’s bus fleet to electric vehicles.  Then there is ‘Very Light Rail’, a pioneering concept that draws on design and component expertise from our auto industry to create a relatively low-cost streetcar system.

The Very Light Rail Innovation Centre, now being built in Dudley, will design and develop lightweight rail vehicles and include 2km of test tracks. It will test the new VLR system that is being built now in Coventry and will soon be rolled out in the city and hopefully more places across in the UK and around the world. In VLR, West Midlands industry is once again driving innovation.

“What the transport map doesn’t show,” says Street “are the numerous other schemes on the table to improve cycling, walking, and healthier ways of getting around which will also play a part in revolutionising how people move about the conurbation.”

“It’s likely the new post-Covid reality will see greater homeworking and a reduction in five-day-a-week commuting. I am working with Transport for West Midlands and the Department for Transport to ensure that the transport offer adapts to passengers’ changing requirements and priorities. We’re looking into options such as improving service patterns at local stations and introducing a new rail service to Moseley, Kings Heath, and Hazelwell stations. With a devolved, democratically accountable regional body at the heart of decision-making for the West Midlands transport network, we are able to assess and implement a transport offer that will work best for local people.”

Pret A Changer

It’s clear that city centre businesses are suffering from a lack of office workers buying their coffee, eating their sandwiches and using their other services. So the way the government in the UK wants to fix this problem is to insist that civil servants travel into their offices and then hope that they spend money whilst they are there. If there was ever a case of “the tail wagging the dog”, this is it.

The world of work has changed forever. During the lockdown many people found they could successfully work from home and didn’t need to commute to an office to get things done. Managers found that employees were not sitting idle all day but were getting on with the job, often managing to improve productivity. Teams adapted to using technology to exchange ideas and collaborative working didn’t collapse. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the fact that people such as civil servants do not need to be sitting in the same office in order to do their work. In the words of the CEO of Schroders, announcing that his employees need never come back to the office “”this has accelerated the move towards flexible working by 20 years”.

So let’s accept that working patterns will never be the same again, even when the pandemic is a thing of the past. Let’s embrace the change and move on instead of trying to artificially prop up city centre services by forcing employees to commute into offices on the assumption they will buy a coffee on the way. Pret A Manger has announced 2,800 job losses as a result in the drop in demand and no doubt many of its outlets will close as patterns of demand shift. There may be fewer office workers in the city centre, but they haven’t stopped eating! Maybe a Pret a Manger will open at the end of your street so you can get a sandwich on your lunchtime walk whilst working from home. Maybe home delivery of coffee will become a new service. It’s interesting to note that since the beginning of the crisis Dominos Pizza have created twice as many jobs as Pret are losing and they’ve just announced they are hiring 5,000 more.

The government needs to accept that the world has moved on and not force Civil Servants to combine to the office just to support an outdated city centre economy. Service industries will need to evolve to support the new reality of work. Pano Christou, who was appointed chief executive of Pret A Manger in September last year, has recognised that they need to adapt to changing customer patterns. He says “I think there’s no doubt that workers will come into the office less often than they had done beforehand, and I think from Pret’s perspective very early on we said: ‘This is not for us to decide’. Pret needs to adapt itself to the changes of customer patterns and that’s where we’ve been very focused.” They will survive by adapting to the new reality and not sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that pre-Covid work patterns will return.

Mangers who refuse to accept that the world has changed and attempt to recreate a pre-pandemic workplace are in for a big shock. Their employees have seen an alternative and they like it. According to reliable research nine out of ten of employees who worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue working at home in some capacity with around one in two employees wanting to work at home often or all of the time. 70% said they got as much or more work done at home compared with the office, which is amazing considering the lockdown was forced on people with virtually no notice and many people had to juggle child care and home schooling with work.

Working from home has shown that people can be trusted to get on with the job without having a manager looking over their shoulder. If you treat people like adults they act like adults. If you revert to treating them like children and insist that they come in to the office when they don’t need to, then don’t be surprised when all the good will built up over the last six months disappears rapidly. Be open minded about how to get the job done. Be clear about the results expected and give the employee freedom to choose how they achieve them. Be prepared to change old inefficient working habits and embrace the new world of work. Less Pret A Manger and more Pret A Changer