A year of COVID lockdown: The true impact of WFH

Posted on March 23, 2021 by Jonathan Symcox

WFH problems

Working from home during lockdown has markedly improved work-life balance – but only for people over the age of 55, according to new research from IT services company Atlas Cloud.  

The survey found that working from home has had the most positive impact on the ability of older workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance.  

When asked to score how working from home compared to their experience of working in an office on a seven-point Likert scale, the over-55s reported that their ability to maintain healthy work-life balance had increased by 0.83 points.  

This equates to an average 17% improvement in work/life balance for people over the age of 55.  

Although smaller, a work-life boost when working from home was also experienced by those between the ages of 35-44 (3% increase) and 45-54 (also a 3% increase).  

However, working from home throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been found to have a negative impact on workers under the age of 34.  

Employees in the 18-24 age bracket had experienced the worst work-life balance, reporting a 12% drop in ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance whilst working from home during the pandemic. Employees aged between 25 and 34 reported a 4% fall.  

The findings have been released to mark the anniversary of the start of lockdown restrictions in the UK on March 23rd and come a month after the chairman of KPMG UK chairman Bill Michael told consultants to “stop moaning” about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on people’s lives, and to stop “playing the victim card”.  

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According to ONS statistics, only 8.7 million people – less than 30% of the UK’s workforce – had ever worked from home in their current job prior to March 2020.  

By April 2020, nearly half of employed people in the UK (47%) were working from home. Millions of employees have been working from home ever since.  

Under the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, workers will be asked to continue working from home where possible until at least June 21st 2021, when the Government has completed a review ahead of ‘Step 4’ in its plan.  

Atlas Cloud’s survey found that younger workers consistently reported the most negative impact on their working experiences when working from home.  

An employee’s “ability to stay focused” on work was found to be the most negatively affected element of working from home for younger workers. Under 25s said that their ability to focus was down by more than a quarter (26%) whilst working from home, and people aged 25-34 reported a decrease of 14%. In contrast, those over the age of 55 said focus had dropped by 3%.  

Overall job effectiveness was also down across all age groups. Younger people were found to be the worst hit, with a 17% drop in effectiveness for 18-24s. This improved with age, with those over the age of 55 reporting an average effectiveness dip of one percent.  

People aged over 55 were found to be having the best experiences when working from home, reporting much less negative impact than any other age group. They are followed by workers aged 35-44, then aged 45-54, then those between the age of 25-34.  

The youngest group of workers, aged 18-24, ranked lowest in all but one of the workplace experiences measured by the survey.  

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The results point to a stark generational gap between the oldest and youngest workers, showing that newer entrants to the workforce and older, more senior members of staff are having very different experiences whilst working from home.  

Inequality of environment when working from home  

One of the factors driving the negative experiences of younger workers is the discrepancy in the quality of the working environment experienced by different generations of staff working from home.  

Almost one in five fewer employees aged between 18-24 had exclusive access to a dedicated workspace while working from home, with just two in five (41%) reporting exclusive access compared to almost three in five (59%) among over 55s (59%).  

Under 25s were also less likely to have exclusive access to a dedicated office chair (40%) and eyeline-level screens (39%) compared to over 55s (58% and 60% respectively).  

Communication challenges of remote workforces  

Workplace communication was highlighted as a key challenge to younger workers; both the 18–24 and the 25–34-year-olds reported an 10% average drop in information given from top management – but respondents aged 35-44 said it had only dropped by 4%.  

The youngest homeworkers also felt that the frequency and effectiveness of communications – both between teams and with managers – had all fallen by 10% or more.  

Collaboration fell by 15% in 18-24-year-olds, and was down by 13% for 25-34 year olds. Those aged 35-44 scored highest for collaboration (a drop of 8%) whereas the over 55s and 45-54s said it had dropped by 11% and 9% respectively.  

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Technology issues when working from home  

The ability to access tech support was the worst-hit workplace experience overall, with 18-24 year olds reporting a drop of 17%. People over the age of 55, who were the age group least affected by this issue, still said that tech support had fallen by 11%.  

The overall effectiveness of work technology when working from home is another area in which all age groups reported a negative impact.  Older workers found this less challenging (tech effectiveness fallen by 3%) than younger employees, as did 45-54s (fallen by 5%), and 35-44s (fallen by 4%). Respondents aged 18-24 said tech effectiveness had fallen by 11%, and 25-34s said it had fallen by 7%.  

Connectivity was found to be another key issue that unevenly affected different generations, with WiFi effectiveness down by 15% for 18-24s when working from home, where those over the age of 55 said WiFi effectiveness had dropped by 3%.  

The future: hybrid working  

As the survey found that the youngest workers have struggled the most with a year of working from home, it is unsurprising that that age group had the highest proportion of respondents hoping to work from the office full-time (11% of 18-24 year olds).  

The age group with the highest proportion of people wanting to work purely from home in future was also the ones who had reported the biggest positive impact on work-life balance and least negative impact when working from home – over a third (36%) of over 55s are keen to continue working from home full-time.  

However, the most common preference for all age groups was people hoping for hybrid working – a blend of home and office working – when it is safe to do so.  

Although the youngest age group had the highest number of respondents wanting to work in the office, more than six times that are hoping for hybrid working (69% of 18-24-year-olds) – the highest out of any of the age groups.  

They are followed by those aged 25-34 (66%), 35-44 and 45-54 (both 62%), and finally those aged over 55 (56% hoping for hybrid work).  

In total, more than two-thirds of UK employees (64%) want to switch to hybrid working after the pandemic.  

Pete Watson, CEO of Atlas Cloud, said: “We know that the pandemic has been challenging for many people, for a myriad of reasons – but this piece of research truly pulls into focus the extent to which younger workers have been struggling with working only from home during this testing time, and the disconnect between different generations in the remote workplace.  

“Throughout multiple pieces of research over the course of the past year, we have examined the benefits and opportunities, but also the challenges and concerns that arise with home working.  The positives are clear to see – as demonstrated by the majority in each age group hoping for hybrid working.   

“This appetite for a future of hybrid working, rather than a return to traditional full-time office working patterns, has shown consistently throughout each piece of research we’ve undertaken.  

“Understanding the potential negative aspects of working from home is just as important, so that we can build better ways of working for everyone in future years. With a global pandemic still ongoing, and staff being urged to work from home while also completely curtailing face-to-face contact with friends and family, this is not a natural test of the effectiveness of remote working.  

“This is because a key factor of hybrid working is choice – something none of us have had during lockdown. It is no wonder that younger workers have felt the brunt of working from home. As this study showed, they haven’t benefited from the same level of working environment as other age groups when working from home – and they are likely to be newer to their careers, wanting more guidance and missing out on the social elements of offices.   

“All of this has been experienced while living through a health crisis and being isolated from usual activities, social groups and support networks.   

“True hybrid working has the potential to overcome the drawbacks identified by this research – when we get the element of choice back. Forward-thinking businesses that empower their people to work in the place where they feel most productive will boost efficiency, productivity, recruitment, retention, and wellbeing.  

“There is now a light at the end of the tunnel for an end to the restrictions, presenting a golden opportunity for businesses to implement hybrid working. Organisations now need to be building agility and flexibility into their policies, and ensure that staff have what they need so they can work just as productively at home as they do from the office.   

“If we all seize this opportunity, we can create a better work-life balance for millions of people, across all ages.” 

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