Telework in the United Kingdom

Official statistics indicate that the incidence and rate of telework in the UK continue to grow, thereby supporting other sources of evidence on organisational responsiveness to and employee take-up of teleworking. This article updates statistical information on telework in the UK and describes implementation measures, social partner reactions, as well as likely trends and their implications for different stakeholders.

Definition

In the absence of a legal or binding, collectively agreed definition of telework in the UK, the Telework guidance (258Kb PDF) published in August 2003 by the then Department of Industry and Trade – now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) – builds on the definition of telework given by the 2002 European framework agreement on telework (107Kb PDF):

Telework is a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/ relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employers premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis.

The UK telework guidance was published on behalf of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the employer organisation for local government – the UK section of the Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP UK).

Prevalence of telework

The UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) reveals that in the spring of 2007, 3.2 million people worked mainly in their own home or in different places using their home as a base. Of these homeworkers, 2.5 million used both a telephone and a computer to carry out their work at home and can thus be considered teleworkers – up from 2.4 million people in the spring of 2005. As a proportion of homeworkers, teleworkers rose from 40% in 1997 to 79% by 2007 while the total number of homeworkers has risen from 2.3 million people in 1997 to 3.2 million in 2007. Teleworkers constituted 8.9% of the national workforce in the spring of 2007, up slightly from 2005 (8.5%) and more than double the 1997 figure (4%). As in 2005, in 2007 men comprised about two thirds of teleworkers and were more likely than women to telework in different places using their home as a base. Full-time workers again constituted 72% of teleworkers (Table 1).

Table 1: Proportion and number of all people in employment and teleworkers, by type of employment and sex1, spring 2005 and 2007
This table shows the proportion and number of all people in employment and teleworkers by type of employment and sex, according to LFS data in the spring of 2005 and 2007.
  All in employment (%) … of which: teleworkers
Works mainly in own home (%) Works in different places using home as a base (%) Total (%)
2005 2007 2005 2007 2005 2007 2005 2007
Men 53 54 41 42 78 76 65 64
Women 47 46 59 58 22 24 35 36
 
Employee 87 87 34 38 37 37 36 37
Self-employed 13 13 62 57 63 63 62 61
Unpaid family worker 0 0 5 4 1 0 2 2
 
Full time 72 74 53 53 81 81 72 72
Part time 28 26 47 47 19 19 28 28
 
Total in ’000 (= 100%)2 28,049 28,323 603 629 1,774 1,874 2,377 2,502

Notes: The figures are not seasonally adjusted. 1 Excludes people employed by the government and those on training schemes who, although classified as being in employment, are not asked the LFS homeworking or teleworking questions. 2 Totals have been adjusted for non-response to the homeworking and teleworking questions.

Source: Office for National Statistics (ONS), ‘Home-based working using communication technologies’, Labour Market Trends, October 2005, p. 423, Table 2 (LFS spring 2005 data); LFS, Spring 2007

While the number of homeworkers and in particular that of teleworkers rose substantially between 1997 and 2006, a slowing down in their growth rate is suggested by a slight decrease in both figures over the past year. The number of teleworkers fell from 2,534,000 in 2006 to 2,502,333 in 2007, reflecting a slight decline in the number of teleworkers who work in different places using home as a base. Nonetheless, this figure is still much higher than that for 1997 corresponding to 921,000 teleworkers. Of the 2.4 million teleworkers counted in the spring of 2005, just one quarter – 603,000 people – worked mainly in their home, while the majority worked in a variety of locations while using home as a base. These proportions remained the same for 2007. The subgroup of teleworkers classified by the LFS as ‘TC teleworkers’ – notably those workers who could not work at home, or in different places using home as a base, without using both a telephone and computer – continued to rise as a proportion of all teleworkers from 80% in 1997 to 88% in 2007.

Occupational distribution of telework

Although teleworkers can be found in each occupational group, they remain more common in some occupational groups than in others. As in 2005, in 2007 nine out of 10 teleworkers worked in managerial, professional, associate professional and technical, and skilled trades occupations. Across most occupational groups, and particularly in skilled trades occupations, the majority of teleworkers still worked in different places using home as a base; only the administrative and secretarial group was a clear exception to this pattern. Self-employed people account for a relatively small share of the workforce; however, they remain overrepresented among teleworkers, accounting for 61% in 2007 – down one percentage point since 2005. In the spring of 2001, the majority (74%) of teleworkers worked in the private sector; by 2007, this figure amounted to 97%.

Sectoral distribution of telework

Table 2 provides a breakdown of the incidence of telework by economic sector. It shows that the incidence of telework has rapidly increased across all sectors since the spring of 1997. The highest increase in telework occurred in the construction industry, rising from 8% to 51% over the decade.

Table 2: Incidence of telework, by sector, 1997, 2005 and 2007 (%)1
This table reveals the incidence of telework in selected economic sectors in 1997, 2005 and 2007, without the figures being seasonally adjusted.
Sector Telework (%)
1997 2005 2007
Agriculture and fishing 5 17 32
Energy and water supply 1 6 16
Manufacturing industries 3 6 13
Construction 8 23 51
Distribution, hotels and restaurants 2 4 10
Transport and communication 3 7 15
Banking, finance and insurance 8 15 32
Public administration, education and health 2 4 8
Other services 8 15 35
Total2 4 8 9

Notes: 1 Figures are not seasonally adjusted. 2 Total includes people whose economic sector of activity is unknown. Estimates have been adjusted for non-response to the homeworking and teleworking questions in the LFS.

Source: Adapted from ONS, October 2005, p. 424, Figure 8 (LFS spring 1997 and 2005 data); LFS, Spring 2007 (independently requested data)

Implementation

No timetable has been specified for the implementation of the 2002 European framework agreement on telework in the UK through legislation, collective agreement or other means at national level. While the national social partners explicitly welcomed the opportunity of mirroring at national level the bipartite commitment achieved at EU level, they opted to devise a joint guidance on telework. Management and employee representatives are invited to use the guidance which follows the structure of and the European framework agreement and elaborates on its provisions in light of UK law and practice to draw up company-specific policies. The social partner signatories concur that telework ‘is best introduced on the basis of consensus’. National social partners have carried out several information and dissemination activities to create awareness of the framework agreement among employers and workers, such as the TUC Worksmart information on telework or the Factsheet on teleworking by the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD). The feedback received by the social partners suggests that many employers and employees have benefited from the guidance, according to the 2006 report by the European social partners on the Implementation of the European framework agreement on telework (1.4Mb PDF).

In the context of a decentralised and limited cover of collective bargaining arrangements, evidence of UK organisational responsiveness to and employee take-up of telework arrangements is mixed, against the apparent slight drop in the incidence of telework from 2,534,000 million people teleworking in the spring of 2006 to 2,502,000 million people in the spring of 2007.

The 2007 CBI/Pertemps annual employment trends survey (2Mb PDF) of over 500 companies, which between them employ 1.1 million staff, indicates that, while all types of flexible working arrangements offered by employers have increased since 2004, the largest increase has occurred in telework. This form of work is now offered by almost half (46%) of the employers surveyed, which represents a quadrupling of prevalence since 2004 (Table 3). The increase is reportedly facilitated by new mobile communications technologies, concerns about the environmental footprint of daily commuting, companies’ desire to avoid non-productive travel time, an inadequate transport system and some employees having to move further away from the workplace to find affordable housing.

Table 3: Type of flexible working arrangements offered by UK employers, 2004–2007 (%)
This table highlights the percentage of the various types of flexible working arrangements offered by UK employers between 2004 and 2007.
  2004 2005 2006 2007
Part-time work 84 85 88 91
Job sharing 38 34 48 55
Flexitime 31 39 44 45
Career breaks/sabbaticals 20 19 29 37
Term-time working 11 11 21 27
Annualised hours 11 13 17 19
Telework 11 14 14 46
Compressed hours 8 8 13 18

Source: CBI/Pertemps, 2007, p.13

However, Cranfield School of Management (2005) found that only one in five of 8,000 surveyed UK companies offered staff the opportunity to work away from the office. Furthermore, the Labour Research Department (LRD) (2005) interpreted a low level of response by trade union representatives (8.3% or 142 respondents) to its survey on attitudes towards flexible working as a sign that flexible working – including telework – is not high on the agenda in many workplaces (Table 4). Only half of the respondents stated that their employer had negotiated or imposed flexible working agreements and policies since April 2003.

Table 4: Workplace agreements on flexible working
This table shows the different workplace agreements on flexible working in place in 2005, according to the 142 LRD survey responses by trade union representatives on attitudes towards flexible working.
  Written agreement Other arrangement
Part-time work 23 69
Reduced hours on return from maternity 30 48
Job sharing 31 34
Term-time work 13 25
Working from home/telework 18 24
Flexitime 30 23
Compressed hours1 21 22
Self-rostering 5 14
Annual hours 22 12
Other 11 21

Notes: Number of responses: 142. 1 For example, four-day week or nine-day fortnight.

Source: LRD, 2005, p. 18

Good practice examples

LRD and earlier analyses of some formal telework agreements signed between UK employers and trade unions at company level identified varying forms and degrees of restriction. For instance, LRD notes that the Newcastle Building Society’s policy is relatively detailed on the subject of homeworking. After acknowledging, due to cost, that the company may not be in a position to agree to every application, it sets out the requirements for homeworking, including health and safety provisions. The company also determines the conditions under which the employer will bear all or some of the initial costs of setting a staff member up as a homeworker. For further good practice examples of telework arrangements in companies, see the case of the trade union-affiliated Unity Trust Bank (UK0102116F) and the case studies of the Incomes Data Services (IDS) on homeworking (2005) and flexible working (2006).

Company policies on and experience of telework

In 2006, the Industrial Relations Service (IRS) surveyed 66 employers about their policies on and experience of flexible working and telework. IRS found that home-based teleworking – where employees, who would otherwise be based in an office, use computers and other technology provided by their employer to work from home for a significant part of their working time – was the least common form of telework; other forms of telework were either regular, nomadic or on an ad hoc basis, with one in five organisations, corresponding to a total of 14 establishments, employing an average of 10 people in this way. A further six organisations previously employed home-based teleworkers but no longer do so. Just under a quarter of organisations surveyed – a total of 16 establishments – indicated that some jobs were deemed unsuitable for home-based employees. Many employers expected home-based teleworkers to be in the office from time to time, although the practice of this requirement varied widely among the organisations surveyed. Of 32 survey responses, 38% of employers felt very positive, 40% positive and 22% neutral about the impact of telework on employee productivity; regarding the employers’ perceptions of telework, see also the 2007 report entitled Enter the timelords: Transforming work to meet the future (1.3Mb PDF) by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which has now become the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Only a minority of employers perceived a negative impact of telework on costs. A small survey carried out among 300 London workers by the software development company Sirenic found that 70% of employees believed homeworking to be more beneficial for productivity. But only 49% of employees stated that their company offered homeworking as an option (PersonnelToday.com 2006).

Similarly, the recent IDS survey on flexible working practices in a wide range of companies received 41 responses (2006). Two thirds of the 27 employers who provided figures on take-up of flexible working arrangements indicated that less than half of their employees have flexible working patterns, and half of these employers stated that less than 10% of employees have flexible working arrangements. Less than a third of respondents allow employees to work at home on a permanent basis. None of the employers who provided take-up figures had more than 10% of employees working from home permanently – at half of their workplaces, less than 1% of the workforce was covered by such an arrangement. However, for some groups of staff – particularly field-based sales teams – working from home may be the norm.

Social partner reactions

Employers in favour of telework

CBI considers rapid growth in the incidence of telework as ‘good news for all of us’; at the same time, the confederation stresses that the government should not view telework as an alternative to investment in improving the UK transport infrastructure. More broadly, CBI’s Deputy Director-General, John Cridland, judges the phased introduction of the right to request flexible working in the UK to be a business success:

because it is a right to request, not an automatic right, which takes into account [business] needs. As a result, increasing numbers of firms have been able to say “yes”.

While he expects that flexibility may become even more widespread as more companies seek to formalise the way they deal with such requests, Mr Cridland adds that cultural change in organisations will take some time to occur and working on a more flexible basis will ‘not be an option’ for some organisations. Similarly, the Director-General of the Institute of Directors (IoD), Miles Templeman, warned against regulation for having:

a poor record in both encouraging innovative practice and in producing solutions that do not have unintended consequences, discriminating against smaller businesses in particular.

Indeed, as well as being regulated like other forms of working by national employment legislation, the UK telework guide recalls that a measure introduced in the 2003 budget enables employers to meet some or all of the incidental household costs incurred by employees who work at home without it giving rise to a tax charge for the employee. Telework advocates argue that government should further promote flexible working by offering tax breaks to employers who provide staff with options for teleworking.

Trade unions cautiously welcome telework arrangements

The trade unions’ attitude to telework can be described as one of cautious welcome. TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, commented:

Working outside the office should be an option that improves job quality for employees and brings people back into the workforce, not just a cheap option for employers. The agreement guides employers on how to ensure staff who telework are working safely, retain union protection, are treated fairly, and do not feel isolated from the office.

While the spread of telework in the UK may have been partially constrained by a voluntarist approach taken by companies, both TUC and CEEP UK refer to the UK guidance document as an ‘agreement’, with TUC encouraging trade unions to use the document as the basis of agreements with employers (UK0309102N). However, at a meeting of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) affiliates in May 2006 to review progress on the 2002 framework agreement, TUC expressed concern that the scope of the UK guide refers to telework as a method of working that anyone can adopt but only within the scope of a contract between an employer and employee. According to TUC, this is ‘meaningless for most self-employed people in the UK and other countries such as Spain and Portugal’.

Views of other non-governmental organisations

The EOC report Enter the timelords draws on the 2005 research of the Cranfield School of Management to suggest that UK companies still trail their European counterparts in offering flexible working arrangements to their staff, leaving many people stuck in a culture of fixed working hours and office ‘presenteeism’. Furthermore, EOC advocates in its report the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees. The Chair of EOC, Jenny Watson, emphasises that telework, shift-swapping and interim management are being offered by trailblazing management, resulting in more engaged and productive staff. She argues that:

the time has now come for this innovation to spread across the workforce to reach the UK’s 29 million workers … Flexible working is still too often seen as just a concession for parents and carers, and comes at the cost of poor pay and prospects. Extending the right to request flexible working to everyone is a crucial step towards breaking this stigma and making a new culture at work a reality.

The main political parties have all welcomed the EOC report, with the Conservative leader, David Cameron, saying that his party would extend the legal right for flexible working to all those who had children under 18 years of age.

Work Wise UK – a coalition of business groups, charities, trade unionists and information technology (IT) specialists launched in 2006 to promote flexible working – believes that working from home could be extended to 50% of the national workforce within five years. On the other hand, CIPD suggests in a 2006 press statement that the phenomenon of telework has been exaggerated, is unlikely ever to be a prospect for the majority of workers, and may be overshadowing ‘far more effective’ means of improving work-life balance. CIPD Chief Economist John Philpott commented that the scope for expanding telework

is likely to be confined largely to employees engaged in the kinds of managerial and professional occupations which currently have an above average incidence of teleworking. By contrast, telework could remain beyond the reach of the 50% of employees in occupations with below average incidence of teleworking ... Although it is not inconceivable that more people could perform jobs like these as teleworkers, most involve work which is either necessarily central office or factory based or directly customer or client focused.

Moreover, the incidence of telework as a proportion of all people in employment remains relatively low and only a somewhat small number of people do telework. Self-employment is the type of work most easily conducive to telework; only one in three teleworkers is an employee. However, Mr Philpott points out that only one in eight UK workers are self-employed. He further emphasises that this proportion has been relatively constant since the end of the 1980s and more than two fifths of these self-employed workers already telework, which limits the scope for further expansion. It seems more likely, according to Mr Philpott, that any major breakthrough on flexible working is for most people in the form of working reduced hours, flexitime or changes in ‘fairly mundane approaches to managing working time’.

Commentary

A small decline in the national telework statistic last year may reflect a slowdown in the long-term growth trend of this form of flexible working and/or the sensitivity of national estimates which are based on a small sample and are subject to a high degree of sampling variability. However, CBI believes that recent regulatory measures and organisational changes could inflate the pre-2007 telework figures further (CBI/Pertemps, 2007). An increase is apparent in the number of requests accepted for flexible working following the extension of the right to request flexible working, in April 2007, to include more than two million carers (UK0702019I). Furthermore, employers have accepted a higher proportion of requests from staff to work flexibly. The rate of requests accepted has remained high since 2003 when this right was given to parents of children under the age of six years and disabled children aged under 18 years. Some advocates of greater use of flexible working contend that in future, with enough support and encouragement from employers, far larger numbers of workers than at present might be able to telework. Others contend that telework in the UK will continue to grow but that the rate of expansion is unlikely to remain as rapid, as indicated by official statistics. Critically, the nature of certain jobs in the economy is likely to structurally limit the amount of ‘core’ telework that can be undertaken.

Challenges and risks of telework

Whatever its future incidence, analyses stress the need for more widespread management of the consequences of telework. EOC highlighted in its 2007 report that, while on balance telework has improved employees’ relationship with their line managers, a key area of concern relates to a perception that it damages the possibilities for teamworking and it is not clear whether this affects managers’ ability to manage performance. In a 2002 study, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) concluded that teleworkers face increased pressure from family, as well as feelings of guilt unless they work long hours and disruption of normal home life. Indeed, a downside of telework is that the proximity of work while at home may mean that certain people feel unable to stop working, leading to overwork or ‘workaholism’. In terms of the risk of overwork, CIPD reports that some employers have run workshops to help their employees to ‘cut off’ work, and suggests that strategies to avoid overwork and maintain a proper balance between working and non-working hours should be impressed on employees before they begin to telework.

Some organisations have run telework pilot schemes or trialled telework to iron out problems before deciding to introduce it more widely among their staff or to end the arrangement. Recognising the need to consider employee temperament and circumstances, many organisations use selection criteria for telework, including minimum length of service, seniority, good attendance records, satisfactory performance and an ability to work independently. Individuals’ employment contracts need to be revised to some extent to reflect telework, and in certain workplaces, trade unions need to be consulted to assure them that teleworkers are treated like other employees.

References

Cranfield School of Management, Cranet survey on comparative human resource management: International executive report 2005, Bedfordshire, Cranfield School of Management, 2005.

Incomes Data Services (IDS), ‘Homeworking: HR case studies’, IDS HR Study 793, March 2005, pp. 13–28.

IDS, ‘Flexible working: HR case studies’, IDS HR Study 834, November 2006, pp. 20–30.

Labour Research Department (LRD), ‘Employers are slow to develop policies on flexible working’, Workplace Report, No. 24, 2005, pp. 18–219.

Jane Parker, IRRU, University of Warwick

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