There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has been a game changer in many ways. For lots of people, the way they work will never return to pre-pandemic patterns. This article examines what’s changed, looks at the benefits and drawbacks of remote working, and gives you some tips on how you can make the most of new employment patterns.
When we talk about ‘remote working’ we normally mean working from home, perhaps in an office, workshop or studio, and often making use of technology to perform activities that previously could only be conducted face-to-face.
Apart from in the home, people can work remotely in other settings, such as cafes, co-working spaces, hotels and libraries. Others use their home as a base and then travel to conduct some of their work. Although many people work from home on a self-employed basis, in this article we mainly focus on what remote working means for employed staff.
Even before the pandemic, a number of factors were leading to more people working on a remote basis. An increase in the number of freelance workers, employers acknowledging the importance of offering their staff flexibility and developments in technology, such as videoconferencing, meant it was easier – or more normal – for people to work remotely.
When Covid hit in 2020, many more people quickly adjusted to remote working. Post-pandemic the hybrid working model has gained traction whereby employees spend a proportion of their week or month ‘at work’ with their colleagues and the rest of the time working remotely.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of people who work on a hybrid basis has grown in 2022. A survey, conducted by Advanced Workplace Associates, found that a typical UK worker goes into the office less than 1.5 days a week, whereas similar surveys before the pandemic found the average to be 3.8 days a week.
What can and can’t be done remotely?
Whether or not remote working is possible depends on the tasks and activities involved in a particular role. The reality is that, in many jobs, there are often tasks (such as report writing and administration) that can be done remotely but there are other things that can’t.
There are lots of administrative, finance, marketing, writing, design, computing and management roles that are relatively easy to do on a remote basis. There are also home working jobs that involve practical work, such as sewing, assembly or packing, where you might get paid for the work you do rather than per hour (for which you should still receive at least the National Minimum/Living Wage).
Many jobs involve using home as a base to do paperwork, speak to customers etc, but travelling to do much of the work, as is the case for many sales reps, maintenance workers, mobile hairdressers, beauty or complementary therapists, gardeners, personal trainers or counsellors.
Clearly not all jobs lend themselves to remote working. Any position that involves the use of specialised machinery, materials or equipment (such as those in laboratories and factories), many customer-facing jobs (e.g. in catering and hospitality), driving jobs, and health and care roles all, by their very nature, require staff to be physically present.
There are also activities (such as conducting certain negotiations, discussing sensitive issues or inducting new members of staff) that are either inappropriate or less effective if performed remotely.
If you are looking for employment and you are keen to find work that is predominantly conducted remotely, many of the major recruitment sites – such as Indeed and Adzuna – allow you to specifically search for such vacancies. The student job site – employment4students – gives advice for those interested in homeworking and advertises relevant opportunities.
Why work remotely?
There are all sorts of benefits for both employers and employees.
From the employer’s perspective:
- successive studies – including by the CIPD – have found that the quality and quantity of employees’ work isn’t affected by remote working and may actually be improved
- they are not limited to recruiting locally so can select staff from a wider and more diverse talent pool
- overheads can be reduced if less office space is needed – so there are potential savings on rent, fuel etc
- if employees appreciate the flexibility of remote/hybrid working they may be more loyal to their employer and staff turnover can be reduced
From the employee’s point of view:
- time and money can be saved by not doing the daily commute
- there’s less need to travel nationally or internationally for meetings etc
- there’s potential for a better work-life balance
- work can be more easily fitted around family or other commitments
- jobs are more accessible to those with disabilities who find travelling difficult
According to the Institute of Student Employers, research by Bright Network found that 91% of the UK students and recent graduates they surveyed are looking for employment that offers flexibility; four out of five expect at least some of their role to be conducted remotely. So there’s definitely an appetite for this mode of working.
Potential drawbacks of remote working
- Remote workers can feel detached from their employer. Hybrid working and/or occasional online or face-to-face team building events can help to give employees more sense of belonging.
- Face-to-face meetings and less formal encounters – such as chats by the water cooler – can provide an insight into different aspects of work. When employees work remotely, they may have fewer opportunities for such 'learning by osmosis'.
- The lack of social interaction can have an impact on mental health, with young people particularly reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety. Employers need to take such issues seriously and put in place support. Some provide employee assistance programmes.
- Not everyone has space to work comfortably at home making it difficult to concentrate when working and switch off at the end of the day.
- To work remotely, you need access to the necessary technology, in particular fast and reliable broadband.
- Communication can be affected by remote working and building relationships with new people can be particularly difficult. When we communicate with someone, expression and body language can be as important as talking and listening.
- Especially with rising fuel prices, employees may be concerned about the increased costs associated with working at home. Support may be provided with this and these costs may be balanced against savings on travel.
Eight tips for remote working
Negotiate your working pattern.
You may want to commit to a certain number of days each week or month in the workplace or your employer may be open to a more flexible arrangement. Once you have worked with the same employer for 26 weeks you have the right to request flexible working (which can include working from home); although your employer doesn’t have to agree to your request, they will need a sound business reason not to.
Create an environment conducive to work.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of a dedicated work space, try to find somewhere – in your home or elsewhere – where you aren’t disturbed during your working hours and where you have everything you need.
Your employer should be able to provide you with the necessary equipment. If you share your home, get your family or housemates to appreciate when you are working and respect your space. You could consider renting a co-working space on a casual or more permanent basis. Apart from being around other people, these can offer facilities you may not have in your home, such as access to a photocopier, reliable broadband, meeting rooms or more specialist equipment.
Do find out about the costs involved though!
Don’t underestimate the social side.
Many people miss the company of colleagues. Your employer may organise team activities, but there’s nothing stopping you from making your own arrangements to socialise, even if it’s just checking in with a colleague for a virtual coffee from time to time.
Work set hours.
Sticking to the same hours you would be doing in the workplace will help you separate work from home life. Use any time you save by not commuting productively – ideally to improve your wellbeing rather than to do more work.
Keep your skills and knowledge up to date.
Just because you work remotely doesn’t mean that your personal development isn’t important. Make sure you receive any training you need.
Think about money matters.
Find out whether you can claim funds and/or tax relief to cover the cost of your heating, broadband, electricity etc when working from home.
Check any regulations around using your home for work.
You may need to inform your home insurer, for instance. Your employer has an obligation to ensure your health, safety and wellbeing wherever you work and may carry out a risk assessment. The Acas website has advice on the legal aspects of remote working.
Be honest with yourself.
If you are given the option whether or not to work remotely, think about whether you have the self-discipline to work alone. If not, perhaps you need to spend a bigger proportion of your time in the workplace.
With remote working presenting both opportunities and challenges to both employers and employees, try to establish the best working pattern for you. In many ways the hybrid working model can give you the best of both worlds, but what works for one person might not work for another.
Debbie Steel, August 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.