Remote working has become much more prevalent since the pandemic, leading to a decline in commuting across the UK. But working from home is still concentrated in certain regions and higher paid sectors. There are also differences between men and women.
Covid-19 changed the way that many people work . During various phases of lockdowns in the UK, those who could were instructed by the government to ‘work from home where possible’, to avoid unnecessary contact with those outside their immediate households.
For months, many people did their jobs without travelling into work, often in makeshift offices and workspaces, which led to a substantial reduction in commuting. This caused a surge in demand for larger, rural and/or suburban houses with extra rooms, and was at one stage hailed as the start of a big city exodus.
But now that the worst of the pandemic has eased, effective vaccines have been rolled out and many people are returning to their places of work, how have remote working patterns developed?
Between the end of 2019 (Q4) and the start of this year (2022 Q1), the number of people in the UK working from home more than doubled, climbing from 4.7 million to 9.9 million. That’s according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – see Figure 1.
Compared with before the pandemic, there are now over five million more people working remotely in the UK. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire working population of Austria.
The increase has varied by nation, with the largest growth in home-working seen in Scotland (up by 203.5%, or 544,000 people). The smallest change has been in Northern Ireland (increasing by 56.4%, or 49,000 people).
Figure 1: Changes in home-working by UK nation/region (2019 Q4 to 2022 Q1)
Looking at the regions of England, it is the richer places where the share of home-working grew the most. The places with the highest percentage of people working from home in 2022 Q4 were London (increasing by 37%, up by 1.9 million), the South East (36.9% or 1.6 million) and the East of England (31.1% or 903,000). In contrast, the regions with the lowest share were the North East (22.4% or 262,000) and Yorkshire and the Humber (26.2% or 668,000).
People with traditionally higher-paid jobs – such as those working in finance or professional services – can do their jobs at home more readily. In most cases, all that is required is a stable internet connection and perhaps a private room.
In contrast, jobs that are typically lower paid – such as retail, hospitality, manufacturing or social care – require personal interaction, physical labour and/or tools and machines located in the workplace.
It is therefore unsurprising that richer parts of the country, with a higher concentration of people working in higher-paid desk-based roles, saw a greater shift to home-working over the course of the pandemic.
How did this affect commuting between regions?
Unsurprisingly, commuting patterns also changed drastically – see Figure 2. Between late 2019 and early 2022, the number of regional commuters – defined as those working in one region but living in another – fell across the UK by 26.1% (down by a total of 629,000 individuals).
This decline was seen in all UK regions, but was largest in London (decreasing by -36.8%, down by 367,000 people), followed by the South East (-19.1%, down by 117,000) and the East Midlands (-21.2% or 32,000 fewer commuters).
Figure 2: Commuting patterns by UK nation/region (2019 Q4 to 2022 Q1)
Note: There were no commuters in or out of Northern Ireland from other UK regions in either the October to December 2019 sample or the January to March 2022 sample. Northern Ireland is therefore absent from the figure.
What about hybrid working?
As restrictions eased, some workers adopted a hybrid working pattern, choosing to work remotely on some days and travelling into the office on others. Many enjoyed some benefits from home-working during lockdown, such as reduced commuting times and costs.
The latest ONS data capture the change in hybrid working from 2019 Q4 to 2022 Q1 – see Figure 3. By the spring of 2022, 14.3% of people (2.8 million workers) who do not mainly work from home said they did so at least once per week. This share was highest in London, with 24.3% of people working flexibly (627,000 workers), and lowest in the East Midlands, at 9.1% (126,000 workers).
Figure 3: Share of hybrid workers by UK nation/region (2022 Q1)
Does home-working benefit men and women equally?
The data also highlight differences in home-working patterns between men and women. In the UK, 16.5% of men reported that they worked from home in 2019 Q4, compared with 12.3% of women. Although a greater proportion of men still worked from home in early 2022, the gap had narrowed, with 31.2% of men home-working compared with 29.9% of women.
Both men and women saw an increase in home-working across all UK regions between 2019 Q4 and 2022 Q1 (see Figure 4). Women in London represented the largest overall rise (at 24.9 percentage points). The smallest increase was for men in Northern Ireland (at only 4.2 percentage points).
Figure 4: Change in home-working percentage, by sex (2019 Q4 to 2022 Q1)
Panel A – women
Panel B – men
The data suggest that working from home is here to stay, at least in some form. For many workers, the benefits of working remotely are clear, with less time spent commuting seen as particularly positive.
But working from home is not possible for everyone, and its popularity varies according to location, occupation and even gender. It is also unclear exactly how the rise of remote working will affect the wider economy.
Should current trends continue, it seems unlikely that we will ever return fully to pre-pandemic work patterns. How this will affect productivity, growth, working conditions and wages remains to be seen.
Where can I find out more?
- The ONS data release covering home-working are available here.
- More data on employment and employee types can be found here.
Who are experts on this question?
- Jonathan Haskel
- Paul Mizen
- Nick Bloom
- Jonathan Dingel
- Jesse Matheson
- Henry Overman