Stephen Wood is Professor of Management, University of Leicester, and a Fellow of the British Academy of Social Science and Academic Fellow of the CIPD. His recent research has centred on employees’ wellbeing including how management practices and recessions affect it, and its effects on organisational performance. Currently, he is studying home working in the pandemic. Stephen has provided policy advice to a range of organisations and contributed to public life in diverse ways including as Chair of the Health and Safety Commission’s Worker Safety Advisor Challenge Fund and a member of the research team of the British Government’s Workplace Employee Relations Survey of 2012.

Using mass home working to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 has not come in for the criticism that other measures have. However, the long-term future of home working needs critical scrutiny. Initial media reporting of enthusiasm for working at home fed into a narrative that it would be part of a new normal. However, mass home working may not be inevitable or necessarily desirable.

Can we not let the decisions of individual employees and employers take their course or even revert to the largely informal methods of the past, which have the virtue of allowing for variety between people and overtime? After all, employees have a statutory right to request flexible working, of which home working is one form. That right can be tweaked so that it applies to all and not, as now, exclude those with under 26-weeks of service.

The pandemic has, however, provided us with an unplanned experiment in home working. Not to systematically learn from this would be missing the opportunity to exercise evidence-based management, reinvigorate employee involvement and extend employees’ choices. Employers and employees need to jointly evaluate their experience during the pandemic. This requires in-depth analysis and coordination of all available evidence. This must include gauging how much the enforced, unplanned nature of home working makes the experience unique.

My research in Universities, covering academics and non-academics, has found similar effects to those in the RSPH’s report, Disparity begins at home. Universities are a good site for isolating the effect of home working as income and workloads were not diminished. We administered two sets of weekly surveys throughout May and September 2020 involving over 800 staff. 

Four results stand out. First, the average levels of wellbeing or mental health (measured by anxiety, depression and the meaningfulness of life) were most affected, in both periods, by loneliness and the inability to detach oneself from work. These downsides of home working are also the factors that are significant in the limited home working studies of the past.

Secondly, other factors were also associated with the weekly fluctuations in wellbeing, including job autonomy, the degree of support from colleagues, and work — nonwork conflict. Here, the pandemic is important as the daily change in the Covid-19 death rate had a significant effect on the weekly fluctuations in wellbeing throughout May, with it affecting older workers more, but not in September.  

Thirdly, we examined factors specific to the enforced nature of the pandemic. For example, we asked about the extent to which work could be done normally, and whether IT support or caring responsibilities affected the ability to work at home. Surprisingly, such factors were insignificant for both average levels and fluctuations in wellbeing.

Finally, over 75% reported being satisfied with home working, alongside over 50% typically reporting being anxious in any one week. We found that factors affecting the level of satisfaction with home working are not identical to those that affect wellbeing. People may be satisfied with their working environment or IT equipment, but these may be causing them health issues that they are unaware of. In the case of home working, we found, that the length of commute time had an impact on satisfaction with home working but no effect on employees’ wellbeing.

The research means we must guard against an over-reliance on reported satisfaction levels when making decisions about the future of home working, no matter how thoroughly these are compiled. The causes of poor wellbeing are where the priority should lie. Yet satisfaction levels may give clues for future actions. In my study, questions on satisfaction with specific things such as support from senior management, line management and IT were informative as they all declined between Spring and Autumn, whereas satisfaction with peers and partners or cohabitees increased. The question for organisations is whether problems of employees feeling unsupported reflect longstanding issues that the pandemic has accentuated, and which point to wider issues that require in-depth consideration.

Developing home working policy must be part of a vision of healthy workplaces, and a realisation that a healthy organisation depends on a healthy workforce. The current emphasis on employee wellbeing initiatives in many organisations and professional circles is targeted at stress not stressors, coping with but not eliminating the causes of stress. My research has shown that any successful extension of home working must address the potential it has to create loneliness and blur boundaries between work, the family and leisure. Addressing such issues highlights that the challenges organisations face are crying out for intensive employee involvement, itself a source of wellbeing. The focus should be on identifying new ideas, facilitators, constraints and stressors, and less on training for imposed changes or programmes for coping with stress without regard for its underlying causes.