The number of people working from home has increased by 13 per cent in the last five years, according to a new Trades Union Congress (TUC) analysis of official figures published yesterday (18 May) to mark National Work From Home Day, organised by WorkWise UK.
The TUC analysis of unpublished data from the Labour Force Survey shows that just over four million employees usually worked at home in 2012, a rise of 470,000 since 2007. The South East, Scotland and Wales have seen the sharpest rise in homeworking over the last five years.
While nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of people who work from home are male, an increasing number of women are also making this career move. According to the research, the majority of homeworking jobs created in the last five years have gone to women. The rise in female homeworking is partly due to the fact that almost nine in 10 (86.8 per cent) of these new jobs are part-time, says the TUC.
In addition to the four million people who usually work from home, many millions more occasionally work from home, says the TUC.
The sharp rise in homeworking in spite of the recession - which many feared would halt flexible working practices - confirms that this new way of working has become an essential part of the UK labour market. Technological progress and the rise of the services sector, where many jobs do not require specialised machinery or face-to-face contact with colleagues or customers, have helped fuel this growth, says the TUC.
But while homeworking has obvious benefits - it can be easier to combine work with caring commitments and there is no need for long and expensive commutes - employers need to be mindful of some of the easily-avoidable drawbacks that come with working in a solo environment, says the TUC.
Businesses can guard against feelings of isolation from other workers and the workplace by keeping in regular contact with homeworking staff, fully involving them in what's happening in the office, and offering opportunities to get in touch wherever possible, says the TUC.
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The recession may have fuelled rising unemployment and put pressure on flexible working practices, but homeworking has continued to thrive and grow.
"Over four million people usually work from home, while many millions more occasionally do so. The sheer scale of homeworking proves how easily it can be done but there are still too many employers who are reluctant to allow staff to work away from the office or the shop floor.
"Of course there are challenges with homeworking. It requires employers to trust staff and people can feel isolated if the relationship is not managed properly. But these issues are easily dealt with through smart employment relations, which unions can help with.
"With government figures showing a further 4.5 million people would like to work from home more often there is still much more that employers can do to meet this unmet demand for more flexible working."
WorkWise UK's chief executive Phil Flaxton said: "The best way to manage employees working from home or remotely is by encouraging independence of thought and action, and developing continuous communication, supported by regular face-to-face meetings. This can be by video/conference calls or other online tools so that experiences, ideas, and success and performance issues can still be shared.
"The whole management ethos has to become much more open, less hierarchical and more trusting.
He concluded:"The key issues for success still surround management styles and the acceptance of change. Building a culture of information sharing and creating trust takes time and careful planning. By carefully choosing and training the virtual workforce and by structuring the organisation to make best use of its virtual employees, most organisations should be able to see an improvement in productivity of between eight and 15 per cent."