The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of working life for many. Changes that are still affecting how we work today. Abigail Marks, Professor of the Future of Work and Associate Dean - Research for Newcastle University Business School, writes about the findings of her recent ESRC-funded project focussing on the experience of homeworking.
A sudden and extraordinary disruption
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted working lives on a global basis during 2020 and much of 2021.
The short-term consequences were sudden and extraordinary, with millions of people in the UK furloughed and many more adjusting to homeworking with their offices closing. Some workers were deemed essential and continued to work in hospitals, grocery outlets, and other necessary infrastructure roles, yet operating under new work arrangements that were introduced to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Homeworking can result in better productivity
Homeworking was certainly one of the most visible manifestations of the changes in working lives brought about by the COVID 19 pandemic.
In 2019 about 4.7% of the UK population were working mainly from home. However, jump forward to April 2020, and a massive 43.1% had become homeworkers. Nearly three years after the start of the pandemic, 38% of workers in the UK still work from home for some or all of the week (ONS, May 2022).
The proportion of home and hybrid workers has clearly reduced since the start of the pandemic but is still significantly greater than pre-pandemic times and reflects a meaningful, and likely permanent, change in the location of work.
Digital technology is now a key part of working life in almost all sectors, and so too are digital skills.
While we know that homeworking and hybrid work affords greater flexibility for employees, there is clear evidence that this change of location significantly alters the pace and burden of work. Employers have often stated that they are concerned that employees work less hard when at home as well as being less productive.
The findings from the Working@Home project certainly suggest that these assumptions are incorrect, with employees who spend a significant part of their week working from home working more intensively, taking fewer breaks and being less distracted by colleagues.
However, this change in working pattern for homeworkers is driven by a growth in online meetings, and increased concern that they will be viewed as less productive when at home and thus be required to return to the office. Around 40% of hybrid and home-based workers have been identified as feeling unhappy and constantly under strain, and these concerns may be a significant cause.
Does the four-day week work?
One option to try and improve working life for both office and home-based workers has been experimenting with the four-day week. The Senedd’s Petitions Committee recently supported an experiment in the four-day week for some Welsh public sector workers. However, there are existing norms with current working practices that may lead to failures in this form of temporal restructuring.
The average full-time working week in the UK is in excess of 40 hours with a mean of over six hours of free labour per week. The need to work extra hours for employees to fulfil their existing workload seems to suggest that it would be a challenge to reduce hours.
With nearly half of the UK workforce indicating that they are suffering from stress, clearly something has to be done.
Many employers signing up for a four-day week may expect workers to undertake the same amount of work within four days that they previously undertook in five. Nonetheless, the Four-Day Week Campaign Group, who are undertaking an experiment in the reduction of the working week in the UK, with 2,600 staff in 100 businesses, suggest that so far, the four-day week is a success with no reduction in productivity.
On the other hand, companies such as the Los Angeles-based Alter Agents marketing and Sydney-based Yarno, a micro-learning platform provider, experimented with the four-day week and found that employees were forced into working informally on the fifth day, due to overburden. They also found that the weekend felt so long, that on a Monday, it was as if employees had been on holiday and had to take time to renew their understanding of work tasks – thus, impacting efficiency. The outcome sadly for both organisations was a decrease in wellbeing and job satisfaction, and so staff returned to a five-day week.
How can we improve the working week
Overall, we do need to look at a working week and what employees can realistically manage. Employees who work in front of a computer and work beyond 4.6 effective hours a day produce smaller quantities of output per hour due to fatigue.
What the Working@Home project learnt from the pandemic was while people have been working at home, they were not working longer hours but the hours they did work were more intensive and they took fewer breaks and moved between tasks less frequently. This change in working pattern achieved some short-term productivity gains. With nearly half of the UK workforce indicating that they are suffering from stress, clearly something has to be done. Employees need to be working fewer hours, and particularly fewer intense hours.
In the short term, governments need to focus on ensuring employees have increased control over the hours that they work, supported by independent bodies that can ensure that businesses uphold good working conditions. The UK government’s employment bill was designed to help in this respect. Moreover, government needs to support an increase in available labour to ensure that organisations have a sufficient workforce to support a manageable working week for all employees.
One other way of freeing the labour force to allow a more manageable working week is through the enhanced use of digital technology.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digitisation of work across most sectors. A growing emphasis on technology adoption has led to the creation of new roles but more importantly, has led to increased digitalisation across the board. Digital technology is now a key part of working life in almost all sectors, and so too are digital skills. Most workers will need a level of digital skills. Therefore, it is essential that digital skills are taught at school and beyond as well as the ability to, and an understanding of the need to continually upskill/reskill digital knowledge.
Findings from the Working@Home project
What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about the future of work? The two clearest lessons from our research are:
- the organisation and location of work can change, and change can be more rapid than we ever imagined demonstrated by the embracing of home and hybrid working.
- what we still need to consider are further changes in working hours and working patterns. Whilst there is scepticism about the four-day week, the current model of the forty-hour, full-time working week does not match the intensity of modern work.
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