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The ability to work from home does not just benefit the elite

Work has been getting a bad press lately. We’ve had the “great resignation” trend, the “anti-work” movement, “quiet quitting” and a wave of strikes. It all seems to add up to a sense that work is getting worse and people are fed up with it. I was even asked to join a podcast discussion last year called “Is this the end of work as we know it?”

But that’s not necessarily what the data says, at least in the UK. When Alan Felstead and Rhys Davies at Cardiff University ran an online quiz in 2018/19 and again in 2022, they gathered about 100,000 responses from people across the country who answered detailed questions about their jobs. The academics found that in 2022, people reported more ability to decide when to start and stop work, more scope to take time off in an emergency, more supportive managers, less work pressure, more say in job-related decisions, better promotion prospects and higher job security. On the down side, they had less discretion over their work tasks.

It’s worth treating online quiz data with some caution, as the authors readily admit. The sample size was huge but the respondents were self-selecting and skewed somewhat towards women, people working in the public sector and professional jobs (though the academics tried to account for this with weightings).

But a separate survey of UK job quality run annually by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also leans against the notion that work has become worse on average: most metrics have stayed pretty steady, with some improvement in work-life balance.

If the quality of work has improved somewhat, why might that be? The tight labour market has helped people to feel less insecure — and might well have prompted employers to make other changes to recruit and retain staff. Then there is the pandemic-induced shift towards remote or hybrid work, which Felstead calls “a radical shift, a lightbulb moment, a break in history”. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University in the US, told me working-from-home levels had been doubling roughly every 15 years until the pandemic. Then we had “40 years of acceleration in the space of three years”.

Felstead and Davies found that job quality improved most in those occupations that had become more likely to involve working from home at least one day a week. And, notably, these winners weren’t just highly paid professionals who had the best working conditions to begin with. This puts a question mark over the idea that hybrid work has widened the gulf between “lovely” jobs and “lousy” ones.

“Before the pandemic, those who were working from home were among the highest echelons, but that benefit has trickled down,” Felsted told me. People such as call centre workers, administrative staff, housing advisers and paralegals are now much more likely to be able to work from home at least one day a week than they were before the pandemic. And that seems to have made the quality of their jobs better: more flexible; less pressured.

Of course, plenty of people can’t ever work remotely. I think it’s no surprise that these workers have been more likely to quit their jobs or go on strike. The CIPD surveys suggest that people in caring jobs, leisure jobs and factory jobs are among those who have actually experienced a drop in work-life balance since the pandemic began. Pay has certainly been the primary reason for industrial conflict at a time of falling real wages, but Bloom says the ability to do hybrid work is equivalent to a roughly 7 to 8 per cent pay increase, based on surveys of how much people value it. That’s a perk that has fallen highly unevenly.

Is hybrid work here to stay? Research by Bloom and his colleagues, which used a large-language model which used artificial intelligence to analyse 250mn job adverts in five English-speaking countries, shows the share of postings that explicitly offer fully remote or hybrid work has shot up from under 5 per cent before the pandemic to roughly 10 per cent or more in all countries (over 15 per cent in the UK) in 2023. But it’s worth remembering the “new normal” hasn’t yet been tested in a labour market where unemployment is high and workers are competing for employers, rather than the other way around.

I hope employers don’t try to wind the clock back, even if they discover they can. Hybrid work seems to have improved working lives — not for everyone, but not just for the elite, either. Plenty of jobs are still lousy, but if some are less lousy, or more lovely, that is progress we shouldn’t throw away.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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