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Covid-19 blurs home and workplace boundaries

Brian Green

Lockdown has renewed interest in homeworking and raised questions over the value of offices in big urban centres. If it takes off, architects will need to reshape the built environment

Home or office who cares if you can.
Home or office who cares if you can. Credit: iStock-Eva-Katalin

It is human instinct to reflect on the changes - and hopefully the good - that might one day flow from disasters and hardships. Mid Coronavirus pandemic, high on that list is the prediction of a surge in homeworking. 

Leaving aside its primary purpose, the government's 'Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives' policy has had two major non-medical side effects. First, it heightened for many people the value of a good home and revealed the inequity and inadequacies latent in our existing housing stock. Second, for many the home has been recast as the workplace.

Intriguingly, this enforced experiment seems to have sparked a renewed wave of interest in homeworking and raised questions over the value of major offices in big urban centres. It is certainly time to listen when Jes Staley, group chief executive of Barclays, says that having 70,000 of its staff worldwide working from home due to coronavirus lockdown measures has led to a rethink of its long-term 'location strategy'. And anecdotal evidence is piling up that this view is gaining momentum.

This raises two immediate questions. How far can homeworking go? And what are the wider implications?

Chart 1: Number of UK homeworkers in the workforce and percentage share.
Chart 1: Number of UK homeworkers in the workforce and percentage share.

Before leaping to answers, it’s worth considering the development of homeworking over recent years and what 'homeworking' really means. It is not straightforward.

One Labour Force Survey question provides the best UK data on homeworking. It presents four locational categories to determine whether and how, in their main job, people mainly work from home. The categories are:

  • Own home
  • Same grounds or building
  • Different places with home as a base
  • Separate from home

A person working in the attic, spare room or kitchen might tick the first category; a farmer or someone working in a garden office the second; a self-employed plumber or sales person the third; and an office, shop or factory worker the fourth.

The first three are regarded as homeworking. So, when we examine the data, these subtleties are important in shaping our interpretation of the numbers. Chart 1 (above) shows the trend over 20 years. And it’s upwards. But within this we need to be aware of the forces that have influenced that rising trend.

Chart 2: Homeworking by UK industry sector.
Chart 2: Homeworking by UK industry sector.

People working in construction may not be the first you would think of as homeworkers. But on the wider measure of homeworking they were, until 2019, the largest cohort when we look across the industrial sectors. This largely reflects the high level of self-employment. In 2009, construction workers accounted for 22 per cent of homeworkers, although just 6 per cent of those worked at home or in the same grounds. We also need to remember that many working in agriculture classify, for obvious reasons, as homeworkers.

There have been big shifts in the number and types of homeworkers since then. While the overall number of homeworkers has swollen from around 3.7 million to 4.6 million in the 10 years to 2019, the numbers in construction and agriculture have fallen. Meanwhile those more likely to be viewed as homeworkers in a modern context, such as professionals and IT people, have expanded greatly as have the number in education, the arts and, importantly, public administration.

Chart 2 (above) and Chart 3 (below) show the distribution of homeworkers across the industry sectors and broad occupational categories. Perhaps most striking is that homeworking appears to be prevalent among higher ranked occupations.

Some caution should be taken in interpreting this as managers of small or micro companies are highly likely to work from home. The same will be true of many freelance professionals and associate professionals. However, the data show the proportion of those in these three higher occupational groups are increasingly working from home.

The abundance of skilled trades using home as a base is to be expected with the high number of self-employed construction trades. What is perhaps more interesting is the low level of administrative tasks currently undertaken by homeworkers. What we see is that public administration is relatively low at present. However, there has been substantial growth from a low base.

Certainly, in the public sector, homeworking has been rare. But the government’s desire to rationalise, shrink and make more effective its estate has been a big driver of changing working patterns, increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impact, as outlined in the State of the Estate reports, first published in 2008. This has pushed a rise in public sector homeworking.

Chart 3: Homeworking by occupation (UK).
Chart 3: Homeworking by occupation (UK).

To provide a context that helps us understand where any likely surge in homeworking might come from within employment sectors, it is worth looking back. Deeper trends have been emerging for some while, driven by developing technology opening possibilities for remote working, concerns over the environmental impact of buildings and a desire for more flexible and family-friendly working patterns. This all pointed to more homeworking.

Reluctance by employers appeared to be among the barriers. The Workplace Employment Relations Study surveys of 1998, 2004 and 2011, however, track a changing landscape. In 1998, 9 per cent of employees said they could, if they wished, work from or at home. This proportion rose to 14 per cent in 2004. The 2011 survey, the last of the series, found 17 per cent of employees working from or at home as part of more flexible working arrangements.

The study’s 2011 survey of managers suggested an increasing willingness among employers to let staff work from home. In 2004, 26 per cent said homeworking was an option for staff. This rose to 30 per cent in 2011.

This background is pertinent. If the reluctance to homeworking lay more with employers than employees, recent events are likely to have been an odyssey for senior management. They will have seen what is possible. They will have seen the increased resilience homeworking can bring to their business. They will have seen many potential benefits: reduced overhead costs, reduced carbon footprint, a widened pool of potential employees among them. And, if work patterns reflected the finding of, admittedly limited, survey work undertaken on homeworker performance, they found their workforce putting in more hours than when they were in the office.

Importantly, this does not mean homeworking is better or more efficient. Comparing the value that flows from creativity and communication in an office compared with engagement between homeworkers is hard to measure. Furthermore, the tasks homeworkers do are not reflective of all work.

However, the benefits of homeworking start to stack up, if not for full-time homeworking, then for greater flexibility that may include homeworking. From the perspective of a CEO looking to cut costs in the face of the emerging recession and to protect against a possible second wave of Covid-19, what’s not to like?

Looking down the list of occupations and industry sectors and the types of work done, there are more obvious candidates for expanding homeworking, particularly when we don’t view homeworking as binary, but part of a more flexible set of working arrangements. We might expect continued growth among professionals and within the public sector. We might expect increases in the finance and real estate. Occupationally, we might expect to see a big surge in administrative and secretarial workers and among sales and customer services employees.

The scale is hard to judge, but the mapping suggests that there is plenty of scope for expansion. And, if there is large expansion, it would herald a profound change in how the built environment is used. For the architects that shape it, making sense of these developments will be vital to success.

The influence of a large shift to homeworking not only impacts the use, size and quality of homes and the need for large offices, it alters the whole configuration of the built environment.

It suggests fundamental shifts in location and the value of locations. It would mean an altered approach to the transport infrastructure as commuting eases. Lunchtime activity in the currently crowded streets of the big commercial cities would wane, balanced by a rise in more remote places as workers getting out of the home for a break or to meet a client or colleague becomes the norm. The pressure would be to invest more in the public realm and public spaces in once residential areas where work is increasingly undertaken.

Brave new world or not, as we release from lockdown there is a growing sense that the home will increasingly become a place of work.



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