What We Don’t Yet Know About Hybrid and Remote Working
Jonathan Breckon and Sarah O’Meara
On May 17, 2023 the International Public Policy Observatory in partnership with GO-Science convened a roundtable of experts to discuss what we do and don’t know about the effect that changes to working patterns are having on individuals’ wellbeing and economic productivity. And whether there could be useful reviews of evidence for policymakers, to illuminate how local and national policymakers, businesses and academics approach the development of our workforce.
This conversation built on points raised in a Government Office for Science-Science Areas of Research Interest relating to the Future of Work in November 2020 as part of the pandemic response Rebuilding a Resilient Britain work that indicated that there was an evidence gap on remote working, including the mental health implications of remote working, its risks to health, safety and well-being of a remote-working workforce, sectoral differences and inequalities, and other issues that require more research.
Here are some key takeaways from our discussion:
Hybrid or remote working offers huge possibilities to provide accessibility and opportunities for those living in left-behind areas. However, it also poses a challenge for employee inclusion, inequality and wellbeing. For example, there are potential pay inequalities with hybrid working arrangements, and new inequalities brought about by remote work among young people who do not have access to good home working spaces.
There was a sense of the importance of balancing well-being with productivity for hybrid workers and ensuring that policies do not exacerbate existing inequalities. Again, there is a need for data on both the demand for remote working and its impacts on inequalities.
Policy and Practice Varies Widely
Without a clear evidence base as to what works, how employers and policymakers approach new ways of working varies – and may be largely dependent on personal preference. There is also the challenge of finding the key responsible department within governments (especially those of a larger size) to discuss such work, as the subject can easily fall between departments.
For example, one speaker highlighted the lack of clear policies around remote and hybrid working in Northern Ireland in direct comparison to the Republic of Ireland.
The need for data on the demand for remote working, as well as its impacts on inequality was highlighted. The roundtable attendees also raised the importance of leadership in initiating change and supporting employees’ wellbeing.
One suggestion was to establish an independent centre of expertise on hybrid and flexible working, and to encourage flexible working to be the default in all employee contracts as a mechanism for enabling worker equality.
A recent scan of innovations and promising practices from policymakers in the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S demonstrates a wide variety of interventions.
Summary of Key Questions for Future Research
- Review of current research and data providing spatial analysis across the UK on the situation of hybrid/remote working and what that means for our cities, regions and people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. What will the future economic geography of the UK look like? Where will the benefits be accrued in low-productivity areas like Northern Ireland?
- What impact could there be for rural development hubs or remote working hubs that are being considered in some jurisdictions (e.g. Republic of Ireland or Wales)?
- What is the impact in the UK on residential housing, commercial properties, quality of offices – how much is this a limiting factor on agglomeration economies if you no longer have density of population as now working from home?
- Do new forms of working allow access and positive opportunities in left behind places?
- Does virtual and hybrid working increase poor health and wellbeing? What are the impacts of virtual/hybrid working on economic inactivity?
- How much does it amplify existing inequalities (e.g. for women with caring responsibilities) but perhaps provide some new opportunities for others (e.g. older workers or people with health conditions)?
- What are the new inequalities, e.g. young people who don’t have access to good home working space?
- Comparisons of different policy interventions across other countries (building on comparison of the Republic of Ireland with NI) including Sweden, Finland and other EU countries eg on ‘right to disconnect’. What policies work? What is really going on? But NB ‘tide is going out’ and opportunities to act are closing
- Look at ‘demand side’ in employers and business, research on occupational health, and what the evidence says about appropriate leadership qualities (among the group, there was a desire for more general research on employers, and their learnings from hybrid working, and how new working practices are affecting employees).
- What are the social inequality impacts of working from home?
- Clarity about different concepts e.g. working from home vs working at home, difference between virtual and hybrid working?
- What jobs are most impacted – and what will be the impact of AI on this area?
Useful Research Resources
Good Work Plan: A 2018 government plan that sets out a vision for future of the UK labour market.
Rebuilding a Resilient Britain ARIs: The Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, to address aspect of Britain’s recovery from the pandemic over the medium-to long-term
Remote Working: A Research Overview by Alan Felstead