Home truths: the upsides and downsides of working from home

One-size-fits all has been discredited in office planning. So why is it still being applied to work from home? A new study suggests that individual homeworkers should be given more consideration

It took large employers a long time to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach to office work was not fit for purpose.

Now they’ve got to acknowledge that the same is true for people working from home, according to a new academic study by the UK Health Security Agency with King’s College London, which has been published in the Journal of Occupational Health.

A British research team led by academic Charlotte Hall reviewed a total of 1,930 pieces of academic literature on the experience of homeworking. It concluded that ‘essentially, a one-size-fits-all approach to working from home is impractical as individual circumstances limit application’.

Its key message is that employers need to be aware of the different impacts of remote work on people with different income levels and personal circumstances – and retain flexibility in how work from home (WFH) policies are devised and implemented.

Good and bad news

The general picture that emerges from this meta-analysis of published research in the field is mixed. The good news is that working from home reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and enables people to eat healthier food and have more creative ideas. The bad news is that home workers are more likely to snack, to put on weight, to smoke and drink more, and fear being overlooked for promotion.

As for having an easier time of it at home, evidence suggests that home workers toil for longer hours, including evenings and weekends, and take less sick leave.

What should organisations do in the face of such contradictory evidence? The answer according to Professor Neil Greenberg of King’s College London, one of the research team, is for employers to start considering home working with the same seriousness as they do office working. That might include providing the right training and equipment for staff to work safely and comfortably at home rather simply leaving them alone to sort it out for themselves. Or it might mean encouraging home workers to take regular breaks, avoid a sedentary workstyle and go on sick leave when sick.

Three main themes

The research reviews WFH findings from three main angles: working environment, personal impact, and health and wellbeing. Each theme will give HR departments in large organisations pause for thought.

The different income levels and personal circumstances of home workers play a significant role in the experience of WFH, with higher earners tending to enjoy working from home more. They also tend to have more space, better home working set-ups, more control over what they do and fewer responsibilities such as childcare, administration or housework.

‘The study recommends the provision of mental health resources and guidance’

In an ideal world, companies will stop implying that staff who want to work from home are seeking a ‘soft option’ and instead up their game on providing more support for WFH. The researchers from the UK Health Security Agency and King’s College London recommend the provision of mental health resources and guidance, more social and team activities to reduce isolation, and greater consideration and assessment of the personal circumstances of individual homeworkers.

One-size-fits-all has long been discredited in office planning. Now, here’s a large-scale study that says it’s time to apply the same criteria of diversity and inclusion to design for home working.  Whatever ways that company leaders choose to respond, one thing is inescapable – the hybrid working model is proving more complicated than most of us imagined.

Source: Charlotte E. Hall, Samantha K. Brooks, Freya Mills, Neil Greenberg, Dale Weston, ‘Experiences of working from home: umbrella review’, Journal of Occupational Health, Volume 66, Issue 1, January-December 2024

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy, emeritus professor of design at the Royal College of Art  and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
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