People working from home during lockdown spend more time at their jobs and are less likely to be promoted or take time off sick, but are paid above average wages, according to an official study.
Documenting the shift to remote work during the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics said the number of people who did some work at home in 2020 rose by 9.4 percentage points from a year earlier to 35.9% of the workforce – representing more than 11 million employees.
However, there were substantial variations between occupations and parts of the country, reflecting the differing experiences of the pandemic for workers as some were hit harder by the crisis than others.
Although suggesting the majority of people continued to travel to work during the pandemic, the figures reveal a divergent impact on homeworkers. According to the research, those using office studies, converted bedroom workplaces and kitchen tables did two-thirds more unpaid overtime in 2020, and were more likely to work after 6pm.
However, they were generally higher qualified and better paid, took longer and more frequent breaks, and started work later in the day.
Staff based at home took less than half the amount of sick leave, with two days compared with four for other employees, reflecting the reduced risk of catching an infection. The ONS said people might also feel well enough to work from home while sick if they did not have to travel.
But while there is no daily commute and apparent greater flexibility, the research found those who work consistently from home are less likely to be promoted, in a sign that they could be overlooked due to reduced face-to-face interaction with colleagues and managers.
The study comes as companies across advanced economies adapt to ways of working accelerated by the pandemic, facilitated by technological advances, Zoom and video conferencing, and consider making more permanent changes to where staff are based after lockdown.
Raising fresh questions over workers’ rights, career development and wider economic performance, many businesses including JP Morgan and HSBC have said thousands of staff may never return to the office, while HSBC told the Financial Times it had got rid of the executive floor at its Canary Wharf skyscraper as part of a move to more remote working.
But in a sign of a two-speed jobs market developing, the ONS said some were more likely to work from home than others.
According to the study, London had the highest rate of people working from home, at 43% of the local workforce, while Northern Ireland had the lowest at 26%. Many areas of Scotland and the north of England also had low rates.
Places in England with low rates included Thurrock, Birmingham, Lincolnshire and Blackpool, while Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands had a higher share of people working from home than the rest of Scotland.
London has a higher proportion of jobs in finance and professional services where working from home is possible, unlike other parts of the country. However, the ONS found London and the south-east still had higher proportions of homeworking than other parts of the country after adjusting for industry mix, suggesting other factors could be at play.
Setting out the different experiences of the pandemic for white- and blue-collar staff, the study showed 62% of IT and communications staff worked from home at least some of the time last year, the highest of any sector. More than half of employees in professional, scientific and technical activities, as well as in financial services, were in the same position.
In contrast, just 12.3% of staff in accommodation and food services – which includes pubs, hotels and restaurants – worked from home. Levels were similarly low for retail, transport and storage.
Staff in warehouses, shops, and factories, among the least likely to be able to work from home, have either been furloughed or lost their jobs in greater numbers amid the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Lower-paid staff and those in precarious jobs, often on the frontline of the health emergency, are also twice as likely to die with Covid-19, according to trade unions calling for higher sick pay to help those needing to self-isolate.