We often think of the pandemic as the catalyst for mainstream adoption of remote, flexible, and hybrid working—and in many ways, it was.

However, take-up increased steadily before the UK lockdowns—albeit under the radar and out of the headlines. Government figures suggest that between January and December 2019, around 12% of the UK workforce worked at least one day each week from home, and 5% most of the time.

Of course, when COVID hit the UK and the government made it mandatory to work from home wherever possible, these figures rose substantially, and around 38% of employed people worked exclusively from home.

These numbers decreased as society returned to normal, but they never returned to pre-COVID levels. Indeed, ONS figures from April 2024 suggest almost a quarter of UK workers regularly work from home, and 12% do so all the time. For that reason, in some quarters, the UK is now considered the work-from-home capital of Europe.

A matter of perspective

But is that a good thing? The answer depends on whether you’re an employer or an employee. Opinions also vary depending on whether you work in the public or private sector, whether you’re a high or low earner, and whether or not you’re a manager. Even race and gender can be deciding factors.

In general terms, however, the flexibility delivered by remote working left a lasting impression on those who could opt in. And, today, over a third of UK employees say they are willing to leave their jobs if compelled to return full-time to the office. Yet despite employee protests, it seems that’s exactly what most businesses want. Almost 70% of companies, including Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Zoom, are pushing for a return to the office.

The UK government has weighed in on the issue too, challenging the reportedly high number of individual civil servants and entire government departments that continue to work from home—suggesting a link between prolonged absence from the workplace and increasingly long backlogs for services, including driving license and passport applications and renewals.

The case for working from home (WFH)

Healthy work-life balance

Remote working can significantly improve health and well-being. UK government findings reveal that 78% of those who worked from home during the pandemic reported an improved work-life balance. It generally reduces the time and money spent on commuting, increases flexibility, and enhances work-life balance—offering a potential solution to combat some leading causes of stress, frustration and anxiety. Regular remote workers also cite benefits such as fewer distractions, improved efficiency, enhanced well-being, and better relations with colleagues.


At the most basic level, if you work from home, you’re not commuting. So you’re not driving a car, taking a bus or catching a train to and from the office five days a week. That’s immediately going to reduce most people’s carbon footprint. So, if an organisation actively supports WFH, that impact will quickly multiply.

As such, WFH has enormous potential to help companies improve their ESG reporting metrics. However, it’s not a given. Another school of thought argues that WFH simply shifts some employee environmental impact from the workplace to their home—particularly in relation to energy consumption. As such, organisations will need to assess the impact of WFH to understand precisely how it improves sustainability and where further gains can be made.

WFH can also help improve an organisation’s diversity and inclusivity. Employers can hire individuals with the right skills from anywhere in the world, opening more opportunities to find the best people while gaining fresh, new perspectives. WFH flexibility also accommodates a wider range of employees, even those just down the road from their place of work. For instance, parents with young children can work during their children’s nursery hours or nap times—helping them to remain in the workforce. The same applies to people with elderly parents or family members needing extra care and support.

The case for a return to the office

Unhealthy work-life balance and isolation

Remote working has its challenges. When the boundaries between work and leisure time blur, it can negatively impact work-life balance. This can lead to a lack of downtime that results in fatigue and anxiety. Depending on an individual’s social situation, remote work can also lead to increased isolation and less contact with others.

Disconnect from colleagues can also be an issue. In-person interactions with colleagues build relationships and foster synergy, creativity, and lively discussions that can be hard to replicate when everyone works remotely. There’s also no denying the value of in-person collaboration in sparking inspiration, creativity, and lively discussions—and that the camaraderie essential for a thriving company culture and career fulfilment may be eroded in a fully remote work environment.

Conscious and unconscious bias

Remote or flexible working isn’t available or practical for everyone who might want to take up the option. People whose jobs require face-to-face interaction, specialist equipment or a large degree of physical/manual activity won’t generally be able to work from home.

ONS data also suggests that UK ethnic minority groups were more likely to have worked outside of their home during the pandemic than white workers. In addition, according to UK government statistics, the median average wage for people who can work from home is likely to be around £19 compared to around £11 for workers whose jobs are less suited to home working. So, could WFH potentially exacerbate existing bias and discrimination in our wider society?

Even where remote working is possible, could it also inadvertently lead to discrimination and favouritism within individual organisations? Managers, supervisors, and those with higher qualifications are more likely to work from home—as are people aged 34-54. Where does that leave graduates, interns, junior staff, younger employees and unskilled workers?

Then there’s the question of whether WFH leads to higher income or whether those with higher incomes are more likely to access remote working opportunities. There’s definitely an issue here that needs consideration, as ONS figures suggest that the more people earn, the more likely they are to have a role with some degree of remote working:

– 8% earning up to £15,000

– 24% earning between £15,000 and £20,000

– 21% earning between £20,000 and £30,000

– 32% earning between £30,000 and £40,000

Finding a compromise

With employees and employers seemingly at odds and a potential political storm brewing, we need a middle ground to ensure employee job satisfaction and efficient operations. A flexible hybrid working policy is a sensible middle-ground for those who enjoy working remotely and those who want to return to the office. It could also create a more level playing field where a larger proportion of employees can work outside the office.

Hybrid working could allow junior staff and new recruits to learn informally from senior peers, train on the job, and absorb company culture. It also gives managers time in the office to build trust with their teams so they are confident that everyone is efficient and hitting deadlines no matter where they work.

The pandemic showed us that technology exists to allow us to communicate face-to-face irregardless of location—even if we still have to remind people on video calls to take themselves off mute. Cloud and Software as a Service solutions have made it easier for everyone to collaborate wherever they’re working—whether accessing shared documents, spreadsheets and presentations or through more specialist accounting, finance and ERP solutions.

Getting hybrid working right… for everyone

There’s still a lot of work to do to get hybrid working right. For example, there’s a perception within some organisations that men and women take up flexible working options for different reasons and are, therefore, encouraged, monitored and rewarded differently.

Hybrid working opens up more opportunities for women to continue their careers and take on senior roles that might not have been accessible because of childcare commitments, which is obviously to be applauded. But does that mean the reasons that men without family commitments put forward for hybrid working are less valid?

There’s also an issue around proximity bias. It’s human nature for people who see each other often in person to form close bonds, friendships, and closer working relationships. If left unchecked, this is bound to impact people who spend a greater percentage of their week working remotely. That’s problematic enough from a social and networking perspective. But how does this situation play out if there’s an uneven gender or racial split between predominantly home and remote working staff?

For hybrid working to be successful within an organisation, it has to be open to everyone wherever it’s practical—and on a level playing field without preconceptions or prejudice. Individual motivation for accessing hybrid working options should generally not play a part in the decision. After all, everyone who wants to work from home is looking for greater flexibility and balance in their lives. As such, the deciding factors should be whether work can be delivered on time and to the expected standards—and whether the company can continue to grow and thrive.

Founder and CEO at Aqilla | + posts

Hugh Scantlebury is the founder and CEO of Aqilla, a cloud-based accounting software firm. With his roots firmly established in the IT revolution of the 1980s working for Kewill Systems plc and specialising in financial accounting solutions, Hugh has over 30 years of experience in financial technology. His competitive business leadership and speciality as a product visionary has led the way in the creation of a web-based, multi-currency accounting solution that fits the needs of mid-market organisations.