Earlier this month, on 6 May, London Transport Museum played host to a showcase of recently completed research looking at the rise of part-day homeworking and its impact on our lifestyles and working practices.
The Museum is increasingly defining itself as a venue not only for portraying London’s past but for addressing its present and future. The day culminated in a high profile evening debate entitled Homeworking: the end of the line for commuting? with industry leaders and opinion formers examining controversial and opposing viewpoints, covering issues such as teleworking, commuting, effects on work-life balance, productivity, overworking, the environment and public policy.
Studies of homeworking up to now have tended to straightforwardly assume that on a given day one either works at home or in the ‘workplace’. Recognising that working patterns appear to be subject to considerable change, particularly in the face of internet and mobile communications, our research centre embarked on a 5-year study into the phenomenon of part-day homeworking.
The study was part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funded FUTURES project.
Part of our research concerned a national survey of a cross-section of around 1000 members of the UK workforce of full-time paid employees which we ran each year for four years. We consistently found that while around 6% of people were working one or more days at home on a given week (a figure which is consistent with that of the Labour Force figure); over double that – 14% – were part-day working for one or more days each week. The most popular pattern of such work was to work in the workplace and then leave ‘early’ to continue working at home subsequently.
From a transport perspective this does not achieve removal of the commute but may at least displace it in time which could be helping ease traffic problems. However, insights from our study, which also included a number of in-depth interviews with selected individuals who part-day homework, suggest that the attractions for individuals of part-day homeworking are less to do with commute concerns and more to do with having greater flexibility to effectively address their work and home lives.
Blue collar workers were found to practice more part-day homeworking than whole-day homeworking, suggesting that the flexibility of homeworking may be accessible to a wider cross-section of the workforce, at least to some degree, than previously thought.
We found that part-day homeworking tended to be more ad-hoc than planned (unlike whole-day homeworking). It can occur when people need to achieve focus on a particular work task; hence a quieter environment is needed than is available in the workplace, particularly when working on confidential work.
Its ad-hoc undertaking is also prompted by another important work-related reason: the need to restore lost focus by means of a change of scene. Individual’s explained to us that the act of changing scene by leaving work and going home to continue work enabled them to regain focus upon experiencing a mental dip during the afternoon. Work would then be carried out (not necessarily immediately) more effectively after returning home. This was often seen as a productive break because the break was their commute, rather than a break for a break’s sake.
The ad-hoc nature of part-day homeworking may in part explain why it is more commonly practiced across the workforce overall than full-day homeworking. The presence of arranged meetings in people’s weekly schedules appears to be a particular barrier to full-day homeworking whereas part-day working can be engaged in at short notice because it can still accommodate such time/space constraints and can also allow for other duties and activities (e.g. collecting the children from school or doing some afternoon gardening in daylight hours).
It may also be the case whereby a ‘homeworking entitlement’ allowance is spread through the week practiced in the form of part-days; therefore more days are spent at home, but for less time on a given day. This was felt to be particularly beneficial for mothers who use this time to pick up children from school and then have the opportunity to spend quality time with them before continuing with work in the evening.
A factor impinging upon the practice of part-day homeworking was the perceptions of the attitudes of colleagues in the workplace: homeworking for a whole day can be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; whereas leaving the office to carry on working at home can appear to others as ‘knocking off early’.
For most part-day homeworkers, the distinction between part-day homeworking and overworking was clear. It was felt that part-day homeworking can ease the burden of overworking, with people often conscious to ensure trading work-time from different days within a working week. Though this flexibility of work-time may appear to intrude into one’s home-life time on the surface, it was not resented and was even appreciated, allowing the multitasking of home-life with certain work-tasks.
London Transport Museum’s debate strongly connected with these concerns, underlining the importance of employers grasping the nettle of changing workplace cultures and taking steps to appropriately support employees such that the benefits of flexibility can be enjoyed by individuals to the full extent, in terms of staff morale, retention and productivity, of employers and thus the economy.
Professor Glenn Lyons is Director of the Centre for Transport & Society (CTS), University of the West of England, Bristol and a London Transport Museum Board Member.
Hebba Haddad is a Research Associate at the Centre for Transport & Society and has been the principal researcher for the part-day homeworking study undertaken by CTS.
The debate, Homeworking: the end of the line for commuting?, was organised as part of London Transport Museum’s Thought Leadership programme which brings together senior level business leaders, government and leading academics to discuss latest industry issues.
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