Last reviewed 3 August 2016

New figures show that homeworking has risen dramatically in the UK over the past 10 years, potentially offering productivity gains for employers as well as significant benefits in wellbeing and work–life balance to workers. Vicky Powell examines the latest trends and the key issues to consider.

Working at home is certainly not a new phenomenon. A range of activities such as sewing, packing, assembly, soldering and telesales have often been carried out by homeworkers.

Research indicates that some of these more traditional forms of homeworking remain widespread but that cheaper and quicker internet access over the last three decades has substantially adding to the numbers of people working at home.

Furthermore, from a legal perspective, since June 2014 every employee has had the right to request flexible working after 26 weeks’ employment service.

Some interesting trends

Recent analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics by the TUC have shown that the number of employees who say they usually work from home has increased by a fifth (19%) over the past decade, with 1.5 million employees now regularly working from home.

This means nearly a quarter of a million (241,000) more people are working from home than 10 years ago.

When self-employed workers are taken into account, the total number of those working from home is estimated at over 4 million (although the focus of this article is employed homeworkers).

The TUC research indicates that:

  • the biggest growth in regular homeworking has been among women employees, with 35% (157,000) more working from home in 2015 than in 2005

  • men still account for the majority of homeworkers, with 912,000 regularly working from home in 2015, compared to 609,000 women

  • older employees are more likely to work from home, with 454,000 in their 40s and 414,000 in their 50s homeworking

  • the South West has the highest proportion of homeworkers in the UK (1 in 12) followed by the East of England (1 in 14) and the South East (1 in 16)

  • the industries with the highest shares of homeworkers are IT, agriculture and construction.

Benefits of homeworking

According to the UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), employees may experience fewer interruptions at home than in the office, and also feel greater commitment and loyalty to the organisation because they value being able to work from home. These outcomes, it is said, can play a part in employers reporting increased outputs or productivity from homeworkers.

The TUC says there are many benefits from homeworking, provided it is properly managed. People can save time and money on costly commutes, while the increased flexibility it provides gives more control over working time, as well as making it easier to balance work with caring responsibilities and the school run.

Homeworking is also an important way for disabled people to access the labour market and around 650,000 people with a disability currently work from home.

Commenting on the trend, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said, “Modern homeworking is good for the economy as it increases productivity, helps businesses hold on to talented staff, and allows people with caring responsibilities or a disability to access the labour market. While homeworking may not work in all professions, I would urge employers to look at the value it can bring to their business and their workforce.”

Health and safety

Acas says many staff who work from home either much or some of the time say they have a better work-life balance and improved job satisfaction.

However, despite the many implied wellbeing benefits of employees working from home, Acas reminds employers within its guidance on homeworking that they must continue to take overall responsibility for assessing health and safety in the part of the home where the employee will work, and in some circumstances this responsibility can extend to other parts of the home.

This requirement is reiterated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which points out that employers are required to protect the health, safety and welfare of homeworkers who are employees.

As ever, the HSE’s advice focuses on the value of an effective risk assessment and employers are urged to carry out a risk assessment of the work activities undertaken by the homeworkers, and then take appropriate measures to reduce any associated risks.

The HSE advice takes a sensible approach in this regard, acknowledging that “a lot of work carried out at home is going to be low-risk, office-type work”.

Furthermore, the safety watchdog says, of the work equipment used at home, employers are only responsible for the equipment they supply.

Therefore, common risks to consider could, for example, include upper limb disorders as well as the suitability of display screen equipment.

However, caution is required. For example, if employees work at home, doing activities such as working with adhesives or soldering, employers need to consider the particular risks involved in these activities. In such cases, employers will need to check that any equipment supplied to the employee is in good condition and that they have the correct personal protective equipment if needed.

Homeworkers are essentially lone workers. On this topic, the HSE points out that working alone does increase the vulnerability of workers and that moreover, this vulnerability will depend on the type of situation in which the lone work is being carried out. For example, homeworkers could face the risk of verbal abuse by telephone, and the HSE has highlighted the importance of support and training in this regard.

The HSE’s guidance INDG226 Homeworkers: Guidance for Employers on Health and Safety may be helpful in identifying, assessing and then making arrangements to control the key risks.

Best practice

Employers will ultimately need to decide whether the work and the worker are suitable for homeworking. Some homeworkers might relish the independence of their situation but equally others could experience feelings of isolation and alienation from their workplace and colleagues.

Therefore, as well as considering whether the work itself is appropriate to be carried out at home, employers should also assess the suitability of the individual to work from home.

Employers can counteract feelings of isolation by ensuring their homeworkers are kept in touch with issues in the workplace, receive the same training as others and are included in any correspondence and consultation on safety and other matters. The HSE’s Stress Management Standards may also be helpful to employers in managing any stress-related issues which arise in relation to homeworking.

The HSE has published research on best practice in managing the health and safety of homeworkers which points out that addressing the health, safety and welfare of homeworkers contributes to a higher level of commitment and makes staff feel valued, as well as preventing ill health and injury.

Homeworking will not suit every worker and will not be appropriate for all types of work but the phenomenon is a growing one and from a health and safety perspective, “out of sight” should never mean “out of mind”.