With offices beginning to reopen around the UK, many workers are questioning whether they want to go back or continue homeworking. Hybrid work may be the solution that combines the best of both worlds.
The experience of working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic will change work in Britain forever. Britain’s homeworkers may have been shielded from some of the more immediate impacts of the virus but Healthy Hybrid: a Blueprint for Business, our new research with Vitality, shows the toll upon their health and wellbeing has still been high. Seven in ten homeworkers report experiencing more aches and musculoskeletal pain, whilst levels of mental health distress have soared, particularly during the most recent lockdown.
Yet despite this, the vast majority of homeworkers are determined to spend more time working from home in the future too – only 16% of homeworkers surveyed in this research would prefer to work mainly in a physical location (see graph one).
At one level, the reason for this is simple: homeworkers have found working from home to be beneficial for coping with the many challenges of the pandemic. Yet at a deeper one, it also highlights a more profound story about how our expectations and values about work have shifted. Having found the experience beneficial, homeworkers now want to hold onto the benefits of increased flexibility because the way they view work itself has changed too. The hybrid work people want is not just a simple switch in workplace location, but a shift in possibilities towards a new ‘healthy hybrid’. Our survey results show that Britain’s homeworkers increasingly want work that supports their wellbeing, flexibility, life-work balance, mental health and ability to lead a fit and healthy lifestyle (see graph two). If we are going back to the office, we are going back as different people; people who want, to quote the Brazilian philosopher of work Roberto Unger, work that allows us “to live a larger life".
As they draw up their post-lockdown plans, organisational leaders should now explore the potential for a ‘healthy hybrid’ model that can deliver inclusive productivity gains for their business alongside a healthier, happier workforce. The story of productivity during the homeworking experiment is illustrative. On the one hand, homeworkers have clearly worked harder – homeworkers in our survey worked on extra 3 hours extra per week on average. But on the other hand, there are some worries these extra hours represent a ‘burnout’ approach to productivity that, in the long-run, is unsustainable because of its impact of wellbeing. Moreover, many homeworkers have struggled to maintain their productivity due to an increased demand on caregivers – a reminder that the effects and benefits of flexibility are never distributed equally.
There will be numerous challenges like this ahead and the RSA’s Future of Work progamme will closely observe the way the hybrid era evolves. But in the main we should be optimistic. ‘Healthy Hybrid’ working gives organisations the opportunity to explore a ‘best of both’ approach in two crucial senses. First, it can allow workers more flexibility to produce their work in environments that are most conducive to being productive – no need to carry out ‘deep’ contemplative work in office environments built for distraction. Second, and more importantly, the shift in values it represents can help create a movement for good work ground in the insight that wellbeing and productivity – health and economic competitiveness – are two sides of the same coin: you need both in order to flourish.
We must not squander this insight as the acute phase of the pandemic passes. Our collective commitment should be that the good that comes out of the pandemic can one day be seen to outweigh the terrible tragedy is has caused. We hope our blueprint can make an important contribution to that mission.
Matthew Taylor will be exploring this research as the guest for a Vitality Speaker Series event on Thursday 27 May 2021.
Data from an RSA/Opinium survey of 1062 homeworkers (defined as people worked remotely during Q1 2021), weighted for representativeness. Fieldwork conducted 14th – 23rd April.
Lianna Etkind, RSA Central Fellowship Areas and Engagement Manager, explores the social benefits of the four-day week and calls for more participation to create the future of work.