Working from home: comparing the data

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic early last year has had huge impacts on many aspects of our everyday lives, and so the Office for National Statistics has needed to produce new and faster figures to track them. One aspect is the increase in those working from home, on which we have today published new data for 2020. Chris Shine examines the data sources and what they have to say.

At the start of the pandemic, the rapid creation of completely new data sources such as the Coronavirus Infection Survey and the Business Insights and Conditions Survey has played a vital role in  ONS’s ability to rise to the challenge of providing new and faster data to enhance our understanding of society and the economy.

While such new surveys and sources have provided timely data which complement existing official statistics, this has also led to more than one estimate on the same topic, whether created for different purposes or addressing different populations, such as business versus household surveys.

One example is our estimates of working from home, something that many people unexpectedly found themselves doing since the onset of the first lockdown early last year. So, on the day that we publish the latest dataset from the Annual Population Survey (APS), we consider the differences in coverage of our various sources on homeworking and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Existing sources

While a number of new surveys have been introduced that report on employment-related indicators, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) remains the main source of official employment statistics published by the ONS.

The LFS is a rolling quarterly survey of the employment circumstances of the UK population and provides the official measures of employment, unemployment and economic inactivity. With a sample of approximately 80,000 people every quarter, it is the largest household survey in the UK and allows us to take an in-depth look at the labour market. To enable the ONS to provide even more detailed analysis, we combine part of the LFS sample with an additional top-up survey to create the Annual Population Survey (APS) which provides more granular estimates on an annual basis.

To estimate the proportion of people working from home, the LFS and APS primarily ask broad questions such as whether respondents mainly work from home, or if they did any work from home in the week prior to their interview. This method is a reliable way of obtaining general working habits and can be broken down in several different ways to produce detailed analysis across different groups, for example by industry, occupation, region, age, sex and ethnicity. However, the data are less timely than some of our newer sources, and so is less able to capture temporary or emerging changes. This source was used at the start of the pandemic to estimate the baseline for homeworking in 2019 in the UK.

New sources

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ONS introduced new ways to enable us more easily to track the week-on-week changes that it brought, including the way the labour market was adapting to changing restrictions.

The existing Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) was redesigned as a weekly survey that contains questions on a wide range of different topics on how the pandemic is affecting households and individuals in the UK. The survey includes questions on where people have worked in the past seven days – including whether they have worked at home, whether they have travelled to work or both. This gives us timely insights on changing patterns of work, of considerable value to policymakers. However, due to its smaller sample size, it is not able to provide granular estimates of demographic differences like the LFS/APS. The OPN has been used regularly in our Social Impacts releases as well as in several iterations looking at sub-national estimates.

The Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) is a fortnightly survey of businesses used to collect real-time information on issues impacting them and the economy. It asks employers a number of questions on homeworking, including the proportion of their workforce working from home in the previous 14 days. The strengths and weaknesses of BICS are similar to those of the OPN, albeit it is answered from an employers’ perspective. Questions in each of these surveys are flexible and can be altered or supplemented to align with emerging priorities and interests, which coupled with their timeliness, have made them valuable sources during the pandemic. However, unlike the APS, they cannot provide comparisons with the pre-pandemic situation.

Other sources, analysis and upcoming releases

As well as the regular releases described above, homeworking estimates have often had a role to play in other publications, including those using experimental surveys and methodologies.

The Labour Market Survey (LMS – an experimental online-only household survey) is being developed as a replacement for the LFS. Recent homeworking analysis compared the findings of the LMS and LFS and highlighted limited differences between the two. Data from this survey were used early in the pandemic to estimate its impact on homeworking in the UK.

Homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities in the UK:2011 to 2020: using new, experimental weightings on the APS survey,we produced average Homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities in the UK: 2011 to 2020 across 2020 and used these to explore the impact homeworking has had on an individual’s job outcomes and productivity.

Online Time Use Survey: the Coronavirus and how people spent their time under lockdown gave us a fascinating insight into how people in Great Britain spent their time during different periods in the pandemic. Among other insights, the survey was able to look at the amount of time people were spending working at home, at a café or similar, and away from the home. This is done by people telling us all the activities they did across two 24-hour days, a work day and a weekend day.

Which jobs can be done from home?: applying data from a United States (US) survey of characteristics of different jobs to the Annual Population Survey and the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, we identified five factors that are associated with jobs being more or less feasible to be carried out from home.

Management practices, homeworking and productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic: this article, also published today, looks at the effect of management practices on the successful implementation of homeworking.

Next month, we are also publishing an article that will synthesize estimates from the OPN and BICS to explore what people and businesses think the future of work will be like in a post-pandemic world.

Insights from our sources

Our collection of sources enable us to provide a rich insight into what’s happening in the labour market and by bringing these sources together we are able to offer a holistic view of trends in homeworking.

For example, using APS data we see that prior to the pandemic in 2019, just 26.7% of the workforce on average during the year reported that they had done any work from home. LMS data told us that by April 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19, the proportion of people in employment who had done some work at home had increased to 46.6%.

We could then use sources such as OPN and BICS to monitor how this proportion changed over the course of the year and in particular attempt to isolate how it responded to events such as changes in government guidance or restrictions. The weekly OPN data showed us that as the country emerged from the spring 2020 lockdown and restrictions were gradually eased over the summer, the proportion of people working from home gradually declined towards a low point at the end of August of 27% before the reintroduction of restrictions in the autumn saw this number rebound to reach 47% in early February. The latest trends suggest the proportion is again declining as the UK nations continue along their various roadmaps for easing restrictions.

In conclusion

The pandemic has had huge effects on people’s propensity to work from home, just as with many other aspects of life. As the country emerges again from lockdown, it is too soon to say how permanent or widespread these changes will prove to be, with many commentators talking about ‘hybrid’ forms of working in which employees attend a central workplace, but much less often than in the past. However, thanks to the different sources of data which have been outlined in this blog, as these changes play out, the ONS will be well placed to track how people’s places of work are, or are not, changing.

Chris Shine works in Public Policy Analysis at the Office for National Statistics.