The pros and cons of homeworking during the Covid crisis

Dr Deirdre Anderson and Professor Clare Kelliher from Cranfield School of Management report on early analysis of the positive and negative experiences of people who have had to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

mum who works at home


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research around working from home was based on the experiences of individuals who had chosen to work remotely. However, the pandemic brought about a sudden and necessary shift to home-working which, combined with a variety of other challenges associated with the pandemic, means the experience of working from home in the time of COVID-19 is different, and not ‘more of just the same.’ To investigate this difference, Dr Deirdre Anderson and Professor Clare Kelliher set up a research project in the early stages of lockdown, gathering insights from Cranfield alumni on their experiences of teleworking during the pandemic. Read on for the initial findings of the study.

A remarkable change brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the dramatic increase in the number of people working from home. As countries implemented lockdown measures many homes became workplaces overnight, and large numbers of employees continued doing, most, if not all, their work activities from their homes. In the UK it is estimated that 45% (ONS, 2020) of employees were working from home at the height of the lockdown. The shift has been easier for some employees than for others. Many white-collar workers were already in the habit of working from home for some of the time. Others, who had not previously used flexible working policies allowing them to work remotely, or who had not had this option open to them, will have had a bigger transition to make to set up working from home. Some may not have had portable equipment such as laptops, or may have needed their employer to enable remote access to allow them log into company IT systems remotely.

Importantly, both home and work may have changed as a result of the lockdown. For example, the home was now occupied 24/7 by all members of the household and there was also a need for many parents to take on responsibility for home schooling their children, potentially conflicting with work demands, as well as competition for suitable workspace. Likewise, the way work is done may have changed. No longer being able to interact with colleagues, clients, or suppliers face-to-face requires other communication mechanisms to be used and in some cases the nature of work activities may have changed.

Working from home as a choice vs working from home as a necessity: the fundamental differences

Understanding the implications of this dramatic shift is of clear and urgent importance for employers, for employees and for policy makers. Research into remote working (often termed teleworking) has documented a range of both positive and negative outcomes related to performance, job satisfaction, organisational commitment and identification, stress and work-life balance. Studies have also examined factors influencing the effectiveness of teleworking, such as organisational culture and support required, particularly from line managers. However, we contend that much of this existing knowledge about remote working may not necessarily relate to experiences during lockdown.

We draw on the findings of this research to argue that there are some fundamental differences about this situation which mean that this is not in essence just ‘more of the same’. The most significant of these relates to choice. Most existing research is based on circumstances where employees are able to choose to work from home for some or all of their working time, in contrast to the recent sudden requirement to do so during lockdown. This could mean very different outcomes.

In previous research on remote working, we observed employees working more intently when working from home, both in terms of the number of hours worked and in being more focused during those hours. We explained this in two ways; first, being away from the distractions of the workplace enabled greater work focus and second, employees, grateful to their employer for allowing them flexibility to balance work with their non-work lives, reciprocated with greater effort. However, in the current circumstances, a busy household may impede, rather than enable, work performance and employees with no option other than to work from home are less likely to feel gratitude and the associated obligation to reciprocate. Instead they may feel resentful, or frustrated by the limitations of working from home.

Insights into the experience of enforced home working from Cranfield alumni

To investigate our contention, we set up a research project in the early weeks of the lockdown to try and capture employees’ experiences of this enforced working from home. Following approval from the University Ethics Committee and working with the Alumni office, we contacted Cranfield alumni asking for volunteers to participate in the research. The research was designed in two stages, an initial questionnaire followed by a diary study.

In early April, 452 people completed the initial questionnaire, including respondents from each of the UN defined geographic regions – Africa, Asia, Europe (201 from the UK), Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Oceania. At this early stage, the majority (60%) reported that their overall experience of working from home was “slightly positive” or “satisfied”, and a further 17% being “very satisfied”.

The diary phase asked participants to write freely about their experiences of working from home, focusing on whatever was important to them relating to managing work and the work-life interface. 195 people submitted at least one diary entry, and 54 did so five times or more over the following four weeks. Below we present some headline findings from our initial analysis of this rich qualitative data, including workload and productivity, the work-life interface and wellbeing. We highlight both differences and similarities to the findings of existing studies and we also report some trends observed over time.

1) Impact on productivity

The impact on productivity was raised by many respondents, with some early contributions referencing how working from home and the schedule control facilitated productivity. For example, a project manager commented: “It’s easier to focus on tasks such as writing technical reports. I’m more efficient later in the day and have the flexibility to start work later and work later hours.”

Others, however, expressed concern over maintaining their usual productivity levels and this related to a number of factors. Some in managerial roles wrote about the amount of time taken up communicating with their team members, in efforts to ensure their wellbeing. Managers reported showing concern for their teams over time, as anxiety grew over the uncertainty of plans to return to work, and the increasing fear of redundancies due to business downturn.

Understandably, given the reason for this sudden shift to working from home, anxiety and the difficulty in focusing on work were reported, although this appeared to ease somewhat over time, with people reporting paying less attention to news bulletins and media reports.

2) Blurred boundaries between home and work

The blurred boundaries between home and work were noted by many, and manifested in different ways. Some participants described an increased workload as a result of responding to the pandemic and noted the increased challenge of long working hours, a challenge even harder to deal with because home had become their place of work with the laptop never far away.

“Work-life balance is extremely skewed. The intensity of work is getting to me. I feel like I need longer and longer breaks as the days go by to “recover”. … But, a lot of things are difficult to work through in some sense because you’re not around other people and they are not seeing the effort that is going towards work.”

In early diary entries some expressed appreciation of the greater time spent with family members and the opportunity to share meals and leisure time; this was noted particularly where work had previously involved extensive time away from the home. Less positively people commented on the challenges presented by sharing workspace and WiFi connectivity with other family members, and of course the demands of children of all ages.

“The main problem is that now we have the kids around and so it’s much more difficult to have time to work. My husband and I tend to take shifts of being on duty, so I should at least get half of each day at my desk uninterrupted.”

3) Wellbeing, physical and mental health

Wellbeing and health were mentioned in many diary entries. People wrote about, for example, their exercise regime, with some using the time saved from their normal commute for this purpose. Others referred to missing the benefit of the transition between home and work experienced during commuting time.

“I realised that I actually miss commuting – the act of travelling from home to work and back separates the two and that’s much harder at home. It gives you time to break from one to the other and to let your mind unwind which is something you don’t get moving straight from desk to settee.”

Some mentioned concerns over the mental health of themselves, colleagues or family members. Of those who lived alone, some reported feeling isolated, or lonely in contrast to their usual appreciation of working from home. Informal contact with colleagues, such as on-line ‘coffee chats’ were valued, but fatigue from so many hours spent at the computer screen was also reported. Although many respondents were thankful for a designated working area, this was not available for many others. In both groups, the inadequacies of their work stations were mentioned, particularly the lack of ergonomically designed office chairs, and increasing back pain from working hours spent sitting on dining chairs or even beds.

Early analysis suggests a wider range of both positive and negative experiences as a result of enforced home working

This early analysis of the findings seems to indicate a wider range of both positive and negative experiences from enforced working from home, in comparison to previous research mainly based on those who had chosen to work from home. Undoubtedly, the experience of recent months has demonstrated that many jobs can be successfully carried out away from the workplace. Hopefully, this will convince managers who have been resistant to staff working from home to give greater consideration to requests for flexible working.

However, we would caution against a wholesale move to working from home, since it is apparent that there can be both positive and negative outcomes for employees and that further examination of the relevant factors is needed, taking account of employers’ duty of care to employees, irrespective of where they work. We conclude with the words of a respondent who had described themselves as satisfied with working from home in the initial questionnaire, yet in the sixth and final diary entry stated:

“I would prefer to go back to work rather than working from home. I enjoy the face 2 face company of people and the distractions. I have found working at home very intense and tiring. I have had no breaks and could not escape the constant demands on my time.”

*This article was first published by Cranfield University here.

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