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Telework in the UK:
Who's doing it?

Insights from the statistics


Knowing how many teleworkers there are  is, for many, a way of validating the concept. A way of saying "Hey look, teleworking is here! It's growing - you should take notice!" For others, the very same figures can be used to debunk the idea that the workforce is changing, by showing it to be a marginal phenomenon.

As important as knowing how many people are doing it, is knowing something about who's doing it, and why. Official figures can tell you a little about the "who", but can only hint at the "why".

Headline figures

According to the UK Labour Force Survey, there are 2.2 million teleworkers in the UK - about 7.4% of the workforce. This is people who work at home at least one day per week.

Teleworkers are defined as people who work in their own home and who use both a computer and a telephone for their work. This includes people who:

  • mainly work from home in their main job - "teleworker homeworkers"

  • work  in various locations but use their home as a base - "home-based teleworkers"

  • don't usually work at home but do so for at least one day per week  - "occasional teleworkers".

The number has been steadily increasing at an average 13% per year since 1997. The average annual growth rate for all employees is 1.6%.

It is worth noting that the LFS definition of teleworking is limited to those who include work at home for a significant amount of time. There are other kinds of telework or "e-work" besides the home-oriented varieties: telecentre-based, mobile (but not using home as a base), location-flexible telework (using for example, client sites to work from) - and so forth.

Jobs and sectors

The uptake of teleworking in the private and public sectors almost exactly reflects the split in the wider workforce between the sectors. 74% of all teleworkers are in the private sector, 26% in the public sector.

This means that in the past few years there has been a remarkable catch-up in the public sector, as initial uptake was almost exclusively in the private sector, with the self-employed particularly well represented. The self-employed still form a significant proportion of teleworkers: 43%, as against 11% of the workforce as a whole.

Taken together, this means that private sector employees are under-represented in the total numbers of teleworkers. Perhaps the private sector is not as innovative in introducing new ways of working as it likes to think. On the other hand, it is probable that the majority of the self-employed teleworkers -freelancers and e-lancers - are working for private sector employers as contractors.

Managers and professionals still predominates amongst teleworkers - almost two thirds of the total.

This is especially so amongst occasional teleworkers, where 91% fall into the first 3 occupational groups - managers (37%), professionals (37%), and associate professional and technical occupations (17%). There could be a hidden message in here, often remarked in workplace surveys: managers see working from home as a privilege of rank, and don't trust their staff in general to telework.

Administrative and secretarial work is only relatively common amongst full-time homeworkers (24% of total) - most of these are women. Skilled trades occupations amongst teleworkers are predominantly found amongst those who travel around using home as a base, making up 27% of this category.

Sales and customer service have perhaps surprisingly low uptake - around 2% of the total. We know of a number of good examples of home-based/home-working sales staff, but it seems few organisations are going down this route. They make up only 3% of the home-based teleworker category, which one might think would be an ideal solution for sales personnel having to cover a wide geographical area. But over half of existing home-based teleworkers are self-employed, so this may be another area where private sector employers are not grasping the nettle and setting up their employees to work at the most effective location.

The government's figures also break down the total across industrial sectors, but generally these are not very illuminating. The sector with the greatest uptake of teleworking is "real estate, renting and business activities" (24%) followed by construction (14%), manufacturing (11%) and education (11%). But to some extent the significant factor is that the majority are managers and professionals, and that across all sectors these are the people leading the way into teleworking. Within these sectors, however, the nature of the front-line or hands-on work will determine the limits of future uptake.

Men and women - a telework glass ceiling?

Over two thirds (67%) of teleworkers in the government figures are men. This contrasts with the workforce as a whole, where 53% of the workforce  is male.

Why the difference? Again, it's the types of jobs the teleworkers currently do. Managers, professionals, associate professionals and technical staff are predominantly male. There was also a good deal of early adoption of teleworking in the IT and telecoms sectors, which are also dominated by men. The self-employed are also mainly male, and as we have seen these make up a greater proportion of teleworkers than of the workforce as a whole. The only category that women dominate is that of homeworking administrative and secretarial jobs. So the gender split in teleworking is a reflection of the gender split in the types of jobs undertaken through telework at the moment.

This may change, however. Increasing numbers of women managers will make a difference over time. And the dominance of women in sectors like HR and training, where there are currently major movements towards greater work-life balance, may make a difference over time.

In addition, the cascading down of telework from the upper levels of organisations - if it happens - would in all probability redress the gender imbalance. The growth of virtual customer service centres (as with the AA) or home-based data processing (as the East Riding of Yorkshire Council) will see the growth of teleworking in roles currently dominated by women. Arguably there are all kinds of equality and opportunity issues arising from this, but this is what we can expect as the nature of the teleworking workforce begins to reflect more exactly the workforce as a whole.

It is interesting that the current gender split in teleworking is almost the mirror image of "traditional" homeworking, i.e. the technology-free variety. This has always been female-dominated, mainly low paid, and with low representation amongst managerial and professional workers.

Revolutionary change - or a marginal phenomenon?

It's kind of a cliché to knock the "R" off revolution to leave an "evolution". It's not the overnight transformation of society that you might have read about in the Sunday supplements. Who decides when evolution is happening fast enough or radically enough to make a revolution? What we have, at any rate, is clear evidence of change, and our concepts and our experience of the workplace are evolving.

Sceptics will point to the fact that these changes currently involve less than 10% of the workforce. But 2.2 million people makes for a lot of change happening. Perhaps more significant, is the rate of change, with an increase of around 13% per year. We are talking about a pretty new phenomenon, too.  The technologies used are really only in their infancy, and prices are much higher than they should be for telecommunications.

The figures only loosely address levels of teleworking - i.e. how often people telework. The 600,000 people who work mainly at home are supplemented by others who, as found in other surveys, work at home around 1.5 days per week. This means at any one time, there are probably about 1.1 million people teleworking from home.

There is some evidence, however, that while the location of work is changing, organisations are not being very adventurous in their approach. Much of the teleworking activity seems to consist of managers and professionals getting away from the office to do what they normally do, only with fewer interruptions. There is anecdotal evidence that managerial teleworking increases substantially during test matches, Wimbledon and the Open. If there were more substantial organisational change, and modernising of business processes, we would expect to see more teleworking identified at al levels.

While official statistics tell us something about the growth of the teleworking and who is doing it, there is much that isn't revealed, for example

  • why are they teleworking?

  • what kinds of technology and connectivity do they have?

  • how is the uptake of teleworking affected by different kinds of implementation?

  • how typical is teleworking within their organisations (if employed)?

  • what about other - less home-oriented - forms of telework?

Understanding more about the motivations and obstacles world give some insight into the shape of future trends. But for the time being, we have evidence that something, and there must be social and economic driving forces behind it.

There is, of course, a key question: is it happening for you, or should it be? In the final analysis, social historians will decide how revolutionary this all is. But in the meantime any organisation can decide to revolutionise the way they work, and introduce flexible location working. And if they do, they'll know they are not alone.


Statistical footnote

The LFS also uses a second, narrower, definition of teleworking where you're only counted in if a computer and telephone are "essential" to your  work. It calls these people "TC teleworkers". This makes almost no difference to the proportions of people in sectors, occupational group  or male/female ratios, although it lowers the total number. 

This definition arrives at 1.8 million teleworkers, made up as follows:

  • teleworker homeworkers: 412, 000

  • home-based teleworkers: 882,000

  • occasional teleworkers: 598,000.

The rate of increase per year is slightly higher for "TC teleworkers". This is likely to be the result of subjective interpretations of what it means to say that use of a telephone and computer is "required".

The "requiring" aspect, or saying that both telephone and computer  are "essential to perform their job" seems to incorporate personal,  organisational or process issues that interviewees for the survey will interpret differently. It is simpler and more informative to find out who does use computer and/or telephone, rather than who thinks their job "requires" them.

The figures referred to are taken from Labour Market Trends, published by National Statistics, June 2002 and October 2002 editions,.

 

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