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Employment

One in five regularly work from home as the government urges return to offices

The findings come as Boris Johnson and his ministers make renewed pleas for workers to return to offices, where the prime minister said staff were “more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas”.

Three times as many people worked from home last year than before the pandemic – with more than one in five saying it is now part of their usual routine. 

The new research published by the Trade Unions Congress for National Work from Home Day highlights a surge in home working – but also shows the increasing geographical inequality in its takeup. 

The findings come as Boris Johnson and other senior government ministers make renewed pleas for workers to return to offices, where the prime minister said staff were “more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas”.

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The government had announced new proposals to make flexible working the default by making it a legal right for workers to request arrangements from day one in a job. However these measures, and the long-awaited Employment Bill they were set to be part of, were missing from the Queen’s Speech, signaling they are not on the government’s agenda. BEIS received 1,600 responses to the consultation, which it says are still under review.

“The government promised to modernise employment law to make flexible working options the norm for every job. But Boris Johnson has cancelled plans for an employment bill this year. And it is mostly people in working-class jobs who are left out. That’s not fair – ministers must step up and do what they promised,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

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The TUC analysis of Office for National Statistics collected in 2021, highlights a widening north-south divide, with almost one in three employees in London now frequently work from home, dropping to just one in nine in Northern Ireland, and one in six in the north-east.

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These regional differences are explained by the concentration of certain sectors in different parts of the country including higher-paid occupations in London and the south-east.

Think-tank Demos has made the case for the government to pursue a move to more remote working as a means of “levelling up” poorer areas. The Irish government has put remote working front and center in its rural development policy, stating “remote working has the potential to be transformative for rural Ireland” by allowing “more people to live in rural areas while working in good quality jobs, no matter where their employer is based.” 

Phil Flaxton, chief executive of not-for-profit Work Wise UK cautioned: “It is vital that the UK does not become a nation of those who can and those who cannot work flexibly.”

Despite the government’s intention to make “flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country,” as stated by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the announcement of the flexible working consultation, the policy has reportedly been postponed. 

Civil servants have been urged to return to their desks for the good of the economy, with Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting those who worked from home on Mondays or Fridays weren’t working a full five-day week. 

There was little change however, in the uptake of other forms of flexible working. Job sharing – which sees two part-time employees share the work and pay of a full-time job – decreased 0.1 percentage points. Annualised hours – which gives employees flexibility to work a specified number of hours over the course of a year – also decreased in popularity, down from 7.8 per cent to 6.2 per cent. 

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