The future of work is at home. Maybe.

Recent weeks have seen several media articles and surveys, all predicting an increase in demand for homeworking in the future, now that many of us have seen just how possible it is to work effectively outside of the office.

I’ve been researching this subject with colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University. We asked employees, who had transitioned to homeworking as a result of COVID19, about their experiences. We asked them to reflect on their challenges from this time, but also what benefits they had found, and what if anything they wanted to differently in the future as a result. We analysed over 3500 individual comments and coded them into themes.

We expected that respondents would tell us about a range of challenges including childcare, home-schooling, stress and anxiety. We also expected to hear about the practical challenges relating to technology and appropriate work spaces, as well as finding balance and establishing boundaries between work and home. This is exactly what people did tell us. However, despite the very many difficulties expressed and the hardships endured, many of the survey respondents were able to identify and articulate very real benefits to their lives too – and much of this related to working from home and reducing the commute.

When we asked people want they want to do differently in the future, almost two thirds of people said that they want to work from home more. More than a quarter of those don’t just want to work from home one day a week, but on a much more regular basis. Some survey respondents talked of wanting to spend the majority of their time at home, or have an equal split between home and office. Others want to reverse the old idea of working from home being something you do one day a week and being in the office for the remainder, to four days at home and one in the workplace.

What does this mean in practical terms for organisations, and for HR teams in particular?

It is highly likely that in the months to come there will be an increase in flexible working requests specifically in relation to homeworking. In my experience of advising on flexible working requests in the past, most people who want to work from home asked for one day a week, or maybe one day a fortnight if they felt their manager was going to be particularly resistant. But we may well see a shift to asking for more time from home – or even the majority.

Of course, what employees want is not always what they will get.  So what happens if people get told no?  There’s a potential risk that where this demand isn’t met and requests are turned down, employees may choose to seek work elsewhere, perhaps for an employer that will allow them more flexibility in their working lives. We know we are heading towards an economic recession so these implications may take some time to be felt – but engagement and morale might take an immediate hit.

This increased demand for homeworking can present a real opportunity, especially in terms of talent acquisition and retention, for those organisations who are prepared to continue these new ways of working into the future.

There are some steps that our research suggests organisations should take now to prepare for the increase in demand for homeworking.

  • Review your overall approach to flexible or home working; how might it work for your specific organisational sector, role types and context in the future? Identify the risks and benefits for your organisation of increased homeworking (or indeed refusing it).
  • Prepare people managers for the potential increase in flexible working requests. Ensure that they understand policies and procedures and their specific responsibilities. They also need to be aware of the potential and multiple benefits of supporting flexible working in the longer term.
  • Review Flexible Working and Homeworking policies and processes to see if they are fit for purpose and update these were necessary.

Is homeworking here to stay? Only time will tell…….

What people want to do differently

This graph represents the answers to the survey question regarding what people want to do differently in the future as a result of their wfh experience. Simply, the bigger the box the  more coded responses.  

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