Flexible Families: The Impact Of Homeworking On Home Life
Published on 20 February, 2023 | Katie Welton-Dillon
Almost three years on from the start of lockdown in the UK, there are few who would doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a life-changing event.
It has, of course, wrought a terrible toll in the home and the workplace.
At the time of writing, the virus has cost the lives of more than 6.8 million people worldwide (https://covid19.who.int/).
Even though emergency ‘bounce-back’ loans managed to insulate the business community from the consequences of having to close premises to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the respite was short lived for some.
By the following year, the number of company failures in late 2021 was 50 per cent higher than the figure for the corresponding period in 2020 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/business/activitysizeandlocation/bulletins/businessdemographyquarterlyexperimentalstatisticsuk/octobertodecember2022).
Yet few of us could have guessed that restrictions which were initially introduced for a matter of weeks would have such a lasting and transformative effect on the way that we live and work.
That much is clear from new data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which shows the degree to which home or hybrid working has become the norm (https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/characteristicsofhomeworkersgreatbritain/september2022tojanuary2023#characteristics-of-homeworkers).
It states that just over half of employees work now solely at their places of employment, while just over one-quarter (28 per cent) split their time between home and the workplace. A further 16 per cent work only from home.
That means, of course, both a massive shift for employees and employers alike and, I would venture, a not inconsiderable complication.
For instance, remote working in whole or part carries additional responsibilities for IT, HR and legal departments. After all, how can you keep staff connected, productive and protect information vital to your company’s success when they are not physically present in the office?
We shouldn’t, however, underestimate the impact which homeworking has on the family either.
There might well be a temptation to think that because someone is at home, they are more able to deal with domestic duties too.
It is true that the absence of a commute offers at least the prospect of more time to contribute to the lives of partners or children.
The ONS material demonstrates that more junior employees – in terms of years and, workplace seniority – are less likely to work just from home.
It is maybe understandable, given that those individuals looking to establish themselves in their profession of choice feel the need to attend offices. It is also only natural to expect younger men and women to crave the opportunity for social interaction too.
On the other hand, people who have climbed a few more rungs on the career ladder might reasonably be expected to be older – old enough perhaps to be in either a marriage or cohabitating relationship.
Although we don’t have such comprehensive data on the ages at which unmarried couples set up home together, further ONS data has highlighted that on average men and women now marry at the ages of 34.3 and 32.3 respectively (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2019#age-at-marriage).
Their apparently greater ability to work from home does not necessarily make for domestic bliss.
That is partly because remote working can mean people spending longer hours on company business than if they maintained the traditional separation between home and office.
Being at home but still being switched on for work purposes instead of available for family can create significant tensions where there might have seemed opportunities to develop relationships.
In the earliest days of lockdown, some commentators predicted that simply being under the same roof for an extended period regardless of having to work might exacerbate marital problems and lead to an immediate increase in divorce applications.
A glance at figures from the Ministry of Justice shows that wasn’t the case. The number of divorce petitions submitted in the first three months of lockdown actually fell by 18 per cent compared to the same period in 2019 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2021).
We didn’t see an increase in petitions in spring 2021, when the UK had begun what was a “phased exit” from Covid restrictions (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9068/).
By that stage, employers and employees had realised that flexible working might be with us into the long-term.
It wasn’t until the introduction of major reform and the advent of ‘no-fault’ divorce in April last year that we saw the kind of rise in marriage breakdown which some expected Covid to produce – up 22 per cent year-on-year.
We can only speculate as to why the couples involved concluded that their relationships could not continue.
From my own experience and that of my colleagues, though, a change in working patterns from 2020 onwards was one of the contributing factors.
Therefore, it’s with no little interest that I see a piece of legislation which aims to allow employees to request flexible working from the very day which they take up a new job is due back in the House of Commons this week (https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3198).
Although the Bill was introduced by the Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi, it is supported by the Government, which reckons that it may benefit millions of workers if it becomes law (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/millions-of-britons-to-be-able-to-request-flexible-working-on-day-one-of-employment).
Whilst I am certainly not suggesting that making homeworking even more routine might equate to heartache for many married couples, it is not a panacea for individuals who already have their troubles and can even generate difficulties which might not have existed before.