Guest Blog: The homeworking message is gradually getting through, now its time to pick up the pace - By Frances O'Grady - TUC General Secretary

The TUC has been part of the Work Wise UK campaign for smarter working since it began ten years ago. Real progress has been made during the course of the campaign. New figures published by the TUC today show 800,000 more people work from home on a permanent basis compared with a decade ago, taking the total to 4.2 million. In 2005, 12.0 per cent worked from home but by 2015 the figure had risen to 13.7 per cent.

There are certainly some grounds for celebration, but the pace of change has still been much slower than the economic imperatives would demand, so the Work Wise UK campaign needs to continue and we should all support it.

Naturally we are keen to see workers getting access to patterns of employment that better suit their wants and needs. There are certainly still far too many people who would like to work from home but cannot do so. We estimate that at least 1.8 million more would like to work from home on a permanent basis, and several million more would lie to be able to work from home intermittently.   The expense, time and general hassle of commuting is often cited as a reason for wanting change.

But perhaps the slow rise of homeworking may now be about to speed up. As economic growth returns, more employers should begin to think about the benefits of homeworking and other ways of working smarter. National Work from Home Day produces a good opportunity for employers and trade unions alike to take stock of the progress to date and to consider the value of offering good quality homeworking.

This ought to be largely a matter of self interest for employers.  Although pay growth is still sluggish at the moment, there are signs that labour market is starting to tighten. For example, the latest ONS Labour Market report show the number of unfilled vacancies increasing by 14.9 per cent last year, whilst trades like engineering are already reporting skill shortages. This should provide a good prompt for employers to start thinking smarter, if they want to motivate and retain their staff.

Trade unions can play an important role in bringing about a genuinely open conversation about what workers really want. They also help to make sure that agreements bring about a real  'win-win' outcome, reminding employers of the need to consider important issues like health and safety and, for example,  who pays for broadband use.  Part of the union role is to ensure that flexibility is never allowed to become a fancy word for cutting overheads at the expense of workers.

In fact, there are sufficient personnel and productivity benefits for employers from homeworking that they can easily afford to treat their staff fairly. Smarter working is certainly not about giving workers something for nothing. The  benefits for employers from meeting the demand for homeworking and other forms of positive flexibility are already well documented, most recently in research published by Stanford University,  which found that homeworkers producing twenty per cent more than there office- based counterparts[i].

Managers and professionals are most likely to work from home, according to the Office of National statistics, but for too many employers there is still a trust gap that stops this flexibility from being offered to those lower down the occupational hierarchy.

The relationship between job status and access to homeworking is borne out when the spotlight is turned onto administrative jobs. The advance of technology means that most tasks could easily be done from home, yet the incidence of homeworking among administrators is only two thirds of the whole economy average, just 9.0 per cent actually work from home.

Access to flexible working and home working are vital for equalities – perhaps it’s no coincidence that three quarter s of administrators are women - but a more diverse workforce also brings its own benefits for employers, both in terms of harnessing positive new creative inputs and in avoiding the kind of negative monocultural thinking that drove many UK banks off the rails at the end of the last decade. 

Smarter working, with more positive flexibility, would help more women to take on management jobs, which are 66.3 per cent male at the moment. 

It is also the case that smarter working would help more disabled people to enter the labour market, as they are disproportionally likely to use this form of working. 17.6 per cent of disabled people in employment already work from home.

As the recovery gathers pace it seems likely that the focus will increasingly shift from “is my job safe” to “what kind of job do I have”. Employers who are alert to the changing mood in the labour market will be best placed to use smarter working as a personnel strategy as well as a way of increasing productivity, and it’s simply the right thing to do.

Whether you want to try working from home for the first time or whether you are considering if it might work in your enterprise, National Work from Home Day should be the necessary conversation starter. 

Frances O'Grady - TUC General Secretary

[i] “Does working from home work: evidence from a Chinese experiment”, N.Bloom, J.Liang, J.Roberts, Z.Zing, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Stanford University, March 2015 (pps 165-218)