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Guest Contributor: Susan Clews, Acas Chief Executive 
(Written on March 24, 2020)

Figures from the ONS show that the number of people working from home doubled between 2008-2018, to 1.5 million. In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, we could see numbers soar to unprecedented levels as more people switch to temporary homeworking.  

Acas has published its own research analysing what works and what doesn’t for homeworkers, their colleagues and managers. Our report, which still holds true today, was called ‘Home is where the work is’. It strikes me that in the current environment, home is not just where the day-job is likely to be; it is where our real life’s work is. Home is where many of us will be caring for vulnerable relatives while trying to maintain our own positive mental wellbeing in the face of understandable fear and anxiety.

Some businesses will be well adapted to homeworking, with the technology and tools in place to easily facilitate it. But there will be many who are, for the first time, navigating around this new way of working. For me, there are three basic principles that will help people working from home stay well physically and psychologically:


  1. Out of sight is not out of mind

Many of the huge advances we have made in our awareness of mental health focus on finding ‘time to talk’. But these moments are most often associated with the office tea point, lift or printer. The theory goes that it’s easier to show empathy and understanding if you can observe body language and listen actively. But can this work as well via Skype or phone?

Poorly managed, there is a risk that homeworkers become not only physically detached from their workplaces, but also emotionally. For managers, there is the challenge of how to pick up on signs of poor mental health without that face-to-face contact. When many of us will be living with heightened levels of stress, it is absolutely crucial that employers and managers continue to communicate with and listen to their workforce, on a regular basis.   


  1. Our sense of identity is complex and fluid

Over the next few months, our personal and communal priorities will keep shifting – for example, the role we play as parent or carer is likely to become more important than ever. Learning to live in a world when the unexpected has become the daily norm is a growing challenge, so let’s not forget to be kind to one another.

Not all of us work on the front-line providing critical support or emergency services. But most of us like to see that the job we do has value and a sense of purpose. These are both critical ingredients of ‘good work’; alongside job security, fair pay, mental wellbeing, peer support, voice and representation and work-life balance.


  1. Adversity can become a virtue

Ongoing periods of isolation will not suit everyone, and our research highlights that this needs to be managed carefully; but it could give some employees the chance to experiment with different working patterns. Homeworking is often associated with high levels of productivity and it can lead to a greater sense of personal wellbeing due to the greater degree of choice people have about how and when they do their work.


For advocates of flexible working practices, this might not be how we thought it would happen, but who knows, habits formed now might stick once the virus has peaked. We may find that we have discovered a new normal way to work.


For more information around homeworking, take a look at the new Acas guidance.


Acas are partners of the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter. They are an independent, publicly-funded organisation that provides up-to-date information, independent advice, high quality training and works with employers and employees to solve problems and improve performance. 

Acas have resources available to employers including online guidance, open access training, in-company training, and in-depth advisory work across the seven characteristics of good employment.