Work From Home is on the rise: just over 13% of the UK, US and Europe workforce performs some or all of their usual job-related tasks at home . The findings presented in this report are derived from data collected among Acas employees via in-depth interviews, a quantitative survey and a 14-day diary study, supplemented by a comprehensive review of the academic research literature. Homeworkers, who conduct virtually all of their work at home, were compared to partial homeworkers, who work from home approximately 31% of the time; mobile workers, who spend about half their working time on the road and the rest divided between home and the office; and office workers.
Performance and job attitudes Contrary to assumptions that a constant physical presence in the workplace is required for maximum job performance, the study found that performance is slightly higher for partial homeworkers and mobile workers. With regard to job attitudes, partial homeworkers and mobile workers report higher job satisfaction and engagement with their jobs than any of their colleagues. Office workers perceive having significantly lower levels of autonomy and control than did any of the other groups of workers.
Contrary to assumptions that a constant physical presence in the workplace is required for maximum job performance, the study found that performance is slightly higher for partial homeworkers and mobile workers.
With regard to job attitudes, partial homeworkers and mobile workers report higher job satisfaction and engagement with their jobs than any of their colleagues. Office workers perceive having significantly lower levels of autonomy and control than did any of the other groups of workers.
Work hours are shortest among office workers: homeworkers and partial homeworkers are more likely to work in excess of their contracted hours, while mobile workers work significantly more hours in excess of their contracts than all other groups of workers. While all groups report similarly high levels of satisfaction with their work-life balance, partial homeworkers, mobile workers and office workers are significantly more likely than homeworkers to perceive that their work has a positive impact on their personal life.
Homeworking and partial homeworking are linked to significantly lower levels of work-related stress than those experienced by office workers. When it comes to social isolation, a common concern associated with homeworking, partial homeworkers are less likely to report experiencing isolation than their homeworker colleagues. This and other findings suggest that, in the case of Acas, partial homeworking yields the best outcomes for employees in terms of minimising levels of stress and well-being.
In terms of career aspirations, homeworkers are less likely to report having the ambition to advance in their careers and to agree that having a career is important to their sense of identity. Interview data suggest that this is due to a combination of homeworkers’ enjoyment of their current job roles, and the expectation that career progression would necessitate a greater amount of time spent in the office. Overall, line managers express more career ambition and have a more positive relationship with Acas than non-line managers.
Four themes that dominate the literature on effective management of homeworkers are trust, performance management, communication, and training. Acas line managers report communicating more often, with more face-to-face interactions, with their office-based staff than with their homeworking employees. A substantial number of managers acknowledge that managing homeworkers is more difficult than managing office workers, but only one-third agree that it would be easier to manage homeworkers if they spent more time in the office.
Homeworking is an arrangement in which employees perform their usual job-related tasks at home rather than in a central workplace, and do so for a regular portion of their work schedule, using electronic media to communicate with others both inside and outside the organisation. ii It is a growing practice: according to the Office for National Statistics, just over four million people used both a telephone and a computer to carry out their work at or based from home in 2012iii. As of 2011, homeworkers constituted just over 13% of the national workforce, a growth of two percentage points since 2001. The majority of homeworkers reported themselves self-employed (63%), with 37% being employeesiv.
Labour Force Survey data from 2009 found that relatively few UK homeworking employees, approximately 5% of the workforce, carried out the majority of their work at home. The number of employees who work part of the time from home has increased to approximately 20%, however. In 2006, the Industrial Relations Service (IRS) surveyed 66 employers about their homeworking policies and experiences. In an echo of the Labour Force Survey, IRS found that ‘intensive’ homeworking, where employees carried out the majority of their work at home, was the least common form of homeworking. More common forms were either regular, nomadic, or on an ad hoc basis. Many employers expected homeworkers to be in the office upon occasion, although the practice of this requirement varied widely among the organisations surveyed.
In Acas, approximately 11% of staff are officially designated as homeworkers, but homeworking is used on an ad hoc basis by a much larger number of employees. For example, of the 514 individuals who completed the employee survey conducted for this study, 46% worked from home on a regular basis. According to the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS), 30% of employers offer homeworking to at least some of their employees. This represents an increase since the 2004 WERS, when 25% of workplaces offered homeworking. In contrast, provision of other forms of flexible working arrangements fell during this same period: the percentage of workplaces offering job sharing decreased from 26% to 16% and those offering reduced hours decreased from 61% to 56%.
There are conflicting views among academics about whether homeworking works best as a moderate (one or two days a week) or a high-intensity (half the working week or more) activity. The practitioner-oriented literature is less equivocal, and tends to be of the opinion that to avoid the potential risks of homeworking (such as isolation, work-to-life conflict, and work-related stress), a non-exclusive homeworking arrangement is advisable for most organisations.vi A prospective counter-argument to this perspective derives from research findings that suggest that there is a learning curve associated with homeworking, and that as workers adjust to the arrangement, they adapt over time to its advantages and disadvantages and develop ways to maximise the former while reducing the latter.vii This can involve modifying one’s use of technology to communicate with others, and amending one’s work processes to better suit an environment free of office-based distractions but also lacking face-to-face contact and cues for taking.
The research literature advocates a number of conditions to be met in order for a successful homeworking experience to take place. Some of these are technical in nature: job responsibilities must be able to be performed away from the office, and work spaces at employees’ homes should be safe, secure, and reasonably distraction-free. Some conditions are concerned with the homeworkers themselves: successful homeworkers need to be able to work without close supervision, should be able to separate their work from their personal lives, and must be capable of overcoming the threats posed by working in isolation. viii Finally, academics and practitioners emphasise that successful homeworking programmes are characterised both by broad institutional support, and by the presence of managers who understand the value of homeworking and have confidence in the benefits it can bring.ix These last two conditions may be more of a stumbling block for UK organisations than any of the other criteria listed above. The former Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) released a report in 2007 entitled Enter the timelords: Transforming work to meet the future, which draws upon the research of the Cranfield School of Management.x The report suggested that UK organisations continue to lag behind many of their European counterparts in offering flexible working arrangements to their staff, retaining a culture of fixed working hours and an emphasis on ‘face time’ within an office setting. Acas differs from these UK organizations by having an established culture of homeworking and few pressures to engage in presenteeism. By investigating homeworking within a comparatively supportive context such as this, the research conducted for this report aims to contribute to knowledge of what helps and what hinders successful homeworking experiences.
Homeworking has a long history in the UK. As long ago as (if not longer than) the sixteenth century, the wool industry relied upon homeworkers to wash fleece and spin and weave wool. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the “domestic system” of working from home accounted for much of the manufacture of cutlery around Sheffield and the production of nails and chain in the West Midlandsxi. Although much of this type of homeworking disappeared following the Industrial Revolution and the growth of factories, the shift of paid work into the factory system varied across sectors, and homeworking was still a dominant form of work organization in many industries during the nineteenth centuryxii. Even now, up to a million manufacturing homeworkers still exist in the UK, primarily in the clothing industry xiii . The spread of homeworking to office-based roles, using telephonic equipment to connect remotely to the workplace, has arisen as organisations make conscious decisions to provide greater flexibility for their employees and effect cost savings on office-related overheads for themselves. This deliberate modification to traditional working patterns has required a more structured approach to homeworking in order to accommodate business and employee needs.
The research conducted for this report had three main objectives: to understand what made for a successful homeworking arrangement at an individual level, to understand what made for effective management of homeworking from an organisational perspective, and to provide an updated review of existing Acas homeworking policy. Acas provides a unique context within which to explore the issues associated with homeworking. As mentioned previously, homeworking is well established at Acas and the culture is generally supportive of this type of working arrangement. Homeworkers at Acas run the gamut from those who perform all of their work-related tasks at home to those who carry out all their work duties at the office, allowing the project researchers to explore differences in homeworking-related issues across this spectrum. Acas was also unique in terms of the organisation’s total commitment to the project and willingness to make all of its staff available for several discrete phases of data collection. This enabled the researchers to construct a much more complete picture of homeworking practices than that which can be accomplished when, as is more usually the case, enthusiasm for original research is limited to one or two key personnel and not disseminated top-down throughout the organisation.
This project follows an earlier evaluation of homeworking practice within Acas undertaken in 1996 by Huws et al., since which time the prevalence and practice of homeworking has changed considerably (due in large part to innovations in technology enabling remote and mobile working). The current project differs from the earlier evaluation by taking a comparatively more outward-focused look at homeworking. In addition to studying homeworking within Acas, the research encompassed four case studies of external organisations renowned for their homeworking policy and practice, and also included a comprehensive literature review of academic research on homeworking published over the past 15 years. In doing so, this project has been able to examine homeworking in general by studying arrangements within Acas in detail and contrasting them to previous research findings and best practice within other relevant organisations.
In July and August of 2012, we also conducted best practice homeworking case studies for four UK organisations in the private sector that are recognised for their flexible working practices. These organisations were Allianz Insurance, Ernst & Young and two other organisations that did not provide consent to disclose their names. These case studies are included in Appendix 8.2: Case studies.
The research was conducted from a normative perspective, and attempted to take into account both the viewpoints of individual employees and the outlook of the employer, including the business perspective on homeworking. The development of the interviews, employee survey and diary study was informed by academic research on homeworking and where appropriate, the findings of this project are presented in the context of the relevant academic literature. The case studies were introduced in order to compare Acas’ homeworking arrangements with those of other organisations. Each of the organisations was selected for the research because they have been recognised for their successful implementation of homeworking and flexible working practices. These ‘best practice’ organisations add value to the research by providing practical ideas for solutions to issues related to homeworking.
The practice of homeworking comes in various shapes and sizes across and within organisations, including Acas. As we began the research with Acas, one issue that arose was determining which employees were, in fact, homeworking. While each employee has an official designation of either ‘office-based worker’, ‘flexible worker’ or ‘designated homeworker’, it was suspected that there was quite a bit of overlap in terms of working arrangements among employees with these designations. Therefore, using data from the employee survey, we created four distinctive profiles of workers that more accurately reflected true working patterns within Acas. These categories will be used throughout this report to present the findings from this study. A description of each category, with some of their characteristics, is provided below:
Homeworkers – this group of workers held an official classification within Acas as either ‘homeworkers’ or ‘flexible workers’. In practice, this group of employees works an average of 90 per cent of their working time at or from home. The majority of these workers are in non-managerial positions. Most are so-called ‘Individual Conciliators’ – that is to say, they administer Acas’ ‘Individual conciliation’ (IC) function (Acas’ core service for promoting settlements where claims have been submitted to an Employment Tribunal; not to be confused with Acas’ other, celebrated ‘collective conciliaiton’ function for resolving collective trade disputes). Almost half (47 per cent) of these employees have children aged 18 or younger living at home.
Partial homeworkers – work some days at home and some days in the office. On average, they spend 31 per cent of their working time working from home and 63 per cent at an Acas office with the remaining 6 per cent spent working on the road or travelling. Of the 54 respondents, 17 (31 per cent) are Individual Conciliators and the remainder are distributed among different working groups (except for Helpline). A high proportion of these workers (50 per cent) are line managers and forty-two per cent of this type of worker have children aged 18 or younger living at home.
Mobile workers – spend an average of 54 per cent of their working time on the road or travelling, 24 per cent at home and 21 per cent at an Acas office. Their official Acas designation and job roles vary, with 47 respondents, 19 (40 per cent) working in ‘Good Practice Services’ (GPS is an umberella term covering a range of Acas’ training and advisory functions) and 16 (34 per cent) have a 50/50 split role. Similarly to the previous category, most of them (89 per cent) do not manage others. While there are more female than male workers in the other categories of respondents (total average is 58 per cent female), mobile workers are mostly male (63 per cent). Seventy-eight per cent described themselves as the main earner in their household at present, which is the highest percentage of main earners among the other groups.
Office workers – spend the majority of their working time (an average of 96 per cent) in the office. The largest working groups in this category are Helpline (103 respondents, 37 per cent), Individual Conciliators (64 respondents, 23 per cent) and Administration (33 respondents, 12 per cent) from a total of 277 respondents. This group of workers has the largest proportion of junior grades and only twenty-seven per cent of office workers manage others. Twenty-nine per cent of these workers have children aged 18 or younger living at home. A large proportion of office-based workers work on Acas’ telephone Helpline. The Helpline allows the public to call and speak with professionals about queries relating to employment disputes. Helpline employees are not currently eligible for homeworking.
Statistically significant differences across these and other categories of respondents are noted in this report. The significance of these differences was assessed using t-tests for the comparison of means and z-scores for the comparison of percentages. The relevant cut-off value for significance at a 95% confidence interval was.
Homeworking is often associated with increased productivityxiv in both academic and practitioner literature. For example, in a study of IBM’s alternative workplace programme, 87% of employees in the programme reported that they believe their productivity and effectiveness have increased significantly since they began to work from home. Similarly, in a UK study of homeworkers, 75% of those interviewed declared themselves to be more or much more effective when working at home than when working in the office.xv However, some researchers have questioned the relationship between homeworking and productivity, pointing out that many accounts are based on self-reported data and that because most homeworkers volunteer to work at home, they may be biased toward claiming success.xvi These concerns can be largely refuted by a considerable amount of data showing that homeworking is linked to increases not only in self-reported productivity, but also in supervisor-rated performance xvii . For instance, a longitudinal study of call centre workers in the USA found that over a five-year period, the homeworkers’ productivity increased by 154%, whereas the office-based staff’s productivity fell by 13%.xviii
There are mainly two proposed explanations for any increased productivity resulting from homeworking. One is based on the frequent finding that homeworkers put in longer hours when working at home.xix For instance, in a qualitative study of 62 homeworkers in the UK, including some from a local government agency, 48% of participants reported having increased their working hours since having changed to homeworking from an office-based working arrangement.xx This explanation was supported upon examination of Acas’ own homeworking workforce. In the qualitative study, several partial homeworkers and homeworkers commented on this pattern.
I think I tend to spend more hours if I am working from home and I will work longer than if I am in the office and that’s fine. It does give you that great flexibility to be able to do that. (Partial homeworker)
In the quantitative survey of Acas staff, employees were asked specifically how many hours per week they typically spend working. This was compared to their contracted number of hours and the average difference for workers with different working patterns was examined. As seen in Figure 1, the data showed that homeworkers, partial homeworkers and mobile workers were significantly more likely to work in excess of their contracted hours than their office-based colleagues.
In an attempt to go beyond self-reports of performance, we examined supervisor perceptions of homeworker performance from the Acas data. Supervisor ratings
(i.e. the annual ‘box markings’ assigned to staff by their manager as part of their performance appraisal) from 2010 and 2011 were aggregated and examined across working patterns. The data show that there are relatively small, nonsignificant differences between groups of employees. However, we do see that the average performance is slightly higher for mobile and partial homeworkers i.e. those individuals who achieve a variable mix of office and home work rather than being wedded to either. This is consistent with the analysis of other outcomes relating to Acas homeworking in which those working more flexibly seem to experience greater job satisfaction and less work-life conflict.
Research examining the origins of manager and coworker resistance to homeworking arrangements has identified as a key factor the perception that teamwork will suffer when one or more team members is not office-based.xxv Teamwork involving a high degree of task interdependence may indeed be affected to some degree by homeworking; there is evidence to suggest that higher levels of task interdependence are associated with lower productivity among homeworkers.xxvi As task interdependence involves a higher degree of communication and coordination between homeworkers and their colleagues, greater interdependence may hinder collaboration and performance due to reduced avenues of communication open to homeworkers.xxvii When jobs involve primarily sequential or pooled interdependence, however, homeworking is unlikely to produce any negative outcomes for teamwork. Empirical evidence also indicates that when workers with reduced ‘face time’ make themselves proactively available to their colleagues, team performance can be enhanced.
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