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Ian Brinkley
Economic Advisor
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Ian Brinkley

Home working - more old wine in new bottles?

Authors: Ian Brinkley

05 June 2014

The Office for National Statistics has recently published some statistics on home working in the UK that appear to show home working on the rise. The definition of home working is a little different to some previous analyses, covering all those who spent at least half of their working week at home, or used home as a base. This excludes what used to be termed “occasional” home working, where people take one or two days a week on a regular basis. The analysis also does not separate out the classic “teleworker” who are employees who spend all their time working from home and could not do so without using new technology.

Most home workers are self-employed people and consist mainly of high skilled white collar workers or more traditional skilled and semi-skilled manual workers in construction and agriculture – these groups account for over 73 per cent of all homeworkers compared with just under 52 per cent in the rest of the workforce. The former has undoubtedly been boosted by the development of cheap, reliable and powerful communication technologies and the expansion of markets for professional services.
What is equally striking is the under-representation of unskilled work. The 1980s image of home working was one of very low income, repetitive, and exploitative work. These jobs are still around but in 2014 unskilled work is significantly less common among home workers than for the rest of the workforce. Just 6 per cent of all home workers were unskilled.

The big rise has been in home workers who use their home as a base, which went up from 6.7 per cent in 1998 to 8.9 per cent in 2014. This is probably part of the general rise in self-employment and of itself there is nothing very new. The increase in home workers who work at home is more significant as a new trend but it has not changed very much – from 4.2 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent of the workforce in 2014.

Unfortunately, we have no published data on how the share of employee home workers and self-employed home workers have changed over time, but my guess is that the share of employees working extensively at home has not greatly increased. In many ways this is surprising . We have the longest and most expensive commutes in Europe, office rents in big cities are often sky-high, broadband coverage is extensive and of high quality, and the Workplace Employment Relations Survey tells us more employers are offering people the chance to work at home. We might have expected a much bigger increase over time.

It may be however that the work-home divide has blurred in other ways, as increasingly sophisticated mobile devices connect people to work wherever they are. Many more people may find themselves doing some work at home – such as checking e-mails – than are ever covered by formal arrangements or picked up in surveys. This looks more like good old fashioned work-intensification rather than in a new era of technology enabled work flexibility. Those who inhabit the truly mobile office that allows them to move from client to coffee shop and back again are still likely to be a very small minority.

Many jobs could of course not be done at home, but even among those that do look transferable hidden barriers my exist. A  survey of knowledge workers by The Work Foundation in 2007 found that most got information from the net, but most knowledge came from work colleagues. Moreover, some managers who are perfectly happy to authorise occasional home working may be less keen on employees spending large amount of time away from their desks unsupervised and unmonitored and unavailable at short notice for informal face to face meetings. Some people may think their lack of visibility will damage their prospects for progression and promotion. Moreover, workplaces matter for many people in terms of social connections and interactions. Some who might welcome the occasional chance to work at home may be less keen on spending most of their time isolated from workplace events and personal interactions with colleagues, clients, and customers.

Some commentators have speculated that higher rates in some rural areas may reflect professionals taking advantage of new technologies to live in the country while remaining connected to major urban centres. This must be true in some cases, but a more obvious explanation is that home based working is very common amongst the agricultural industries.

What we are seeing is a mix of old and new, boosted in some cases by new communication technologies. Past forecasts of a technology driven fundamental shift of work from office to home still looks unfilled. However, even though these figures are less eye-shattering that some might suppose, they nonetheless do point to some important underlying trends in where we do work and how and why we divide our working lives between homes and offices. But our understanding is often incomplete – telecommuting for example seems to defy precise and consistent measurement – and hence the implications for future policy and organisational change remain uncertain.