Skip to main content

18 June 2021

Work after Covid: lessons from lockdown for resilience and recovery

Zoe Young

What will the workplace look like post-pandemic, and what would a rise in hybrid working mean for women?

Work after lockdown News story 2

Essays on equality – Covid-19: the road to a gender-equal recovery

Read the essay collection

Prior to the pandemic, working from home was simply one of many flexible working options made available by progressive organisations seeking to promote work-life balance. Typically, it was an option used by women in combination with other adjustments to working hours, to reconcile maternal responsibilities with paid work. Informal use of working from home on a Friday by many became characteristic of British office culture to ease into a weekend. It was far less common in the UK to work from home all the time: only 3 per cent of employed people worked in this way. One year into the UK’s pandemic response, and working from home is a business continuity lifeline. Around 30 per cent of employed people across the four nations were doing their jobs from their homes during the first pandemic peak.

Will it stay or will it go? Will people want to continue to work in this way when Covid-19 restrictions ease? Who will benefit and who might lose out? And what are the implications for women’s employment and labour market opportunities arising from continuation, cessation, or adoption of the much discussed “hybrid” location model? These are the very good questions that will be answered by the Work After Lockdown project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The lasting impacts of crisis-driven homeworking can only be assessed with time. But, as people and organisations across the UK navigate a third period of national lockdown, our research offers important learnings from the first about motivating employees and sustaining performance vital for resilience, recovery and growth.

Working from home works, provided the conditions are right

The shift from office to home was rapid in March 2020, and for some organisations it was comprehensive, with 100 per cent of the retained workforce suddenly “out of the office”. Productivity was good. By self-report measures, almost nine in 10 employees we asked felt they had got at least as much, if not more, work done at home as in the office. Good news for organisations and impressive under testing circumstances. But at what cost comes high productivity? Maintaining it during successive weeks and months of the pandemic takes its toll, with employees’ responses on mental health and wellbeing on our survey ranking relatively low – at 47 out of 100 – measured against the World Health Organisation global standard. Wellbeing is an area where employers need to act.

Women are in the middle, again

There is little doubt from our research that working from home is most productive for people with access to adequate desk space, technology, privacy, and uninterrupted time. Access to these vital components of effective working from home was not universal, and it was parents and carers who felt a time squeeze most acutely.

Women make up the majority of this group and were uncomfortably yet familiarly positioned in the middle of a collision of caring and crisis.

For women with very young and school-age children at home all the time, working time was broken time – often fragmented and frequently interrupted. We found that not only were parents and carers less likely to work from home under conditions conducive to high productivity, they were also more vulnerable to anxiety, stress and burnout. It is clear from our research and that of many others, that maintaining work performance through successive lockdowns and school closures has come at high cost to women’s cognitive, emotional and financial resources.

Poor workforce health and wellbeing threatens business continuity. Wellbeing – physical, mental and emotional health – should be prioritised for organisational stability and performance. Continued reliance on individuals “coping” is not a sustainable strategy to maintain and improve productivity. Instead, employers must focus on interventions and practical adjustments to workloads and working practices that remove burdens and ease intensity.

The pivotal role of line managers

Line managers played a pivotal role in sustaining employee performance during lockdown. Many embraced the challenges and made immense efforts supporting their colleagues practically and emotionally. On the downside, working from home has also exposed managers who lack empathy, have little insight into diverse workforce needs, and possess limited interpersonal skills.

Line managers are on the frontline of organisational responses to change in their translation of corporate messaging and policies into practical ways of working for their teams, and yet only a minority received any guidance on how to coordinate the different working patterns necessitated by lockdown. Organisational stability and future growth will be assisted by reviewing managers’ suitability for the task, and by developing training curricula that strengthen the new people management competencies that are demanded by workforce diversity and the future shape of work.

Working from home after lockdown?

Despite the challenges, there have been some individual gains from home-working – for example, in the cost and the time saved by not commuting. But social contact has been greatly missed by many and could fuel an immediate surge back to the office when confidence returns. That said, seven in 10 employees wish to continue working from home when pandemic restrictions are lifted either some of the time or for specific work tasks, under what has been termed a “hybrid” model. Our survey findings mirror national data from the Understanding Society Covid-19 Study, where 75 per cent of employees across a broad range of industries want some working from home once things return to normal.

Time to re-engage with flexible working

It is clear from our research that being able to adjust the time and timing of work has proved as, if not more, significant as the place of work in retaining parents and carers in employment through the pandemic. Few will want to reverse the situation and give up the task and schedule autonomy that has sustained them under lockdown. This situation requires employers to re-engage with flexible working. Seriously. With intent to discover ways of working that will not only retain and sustain, but also boost individual and team performance. Shaping a more equitable future of work requires an intentional strategy to test and to learn about how flexibility works in different roles and teams, and for people in different circumstances, because one model is unlikely to suit all in the future of work after lockdown.


Zoe Young is Director of Half the Sky and Co-Investigator on Work After Lockdown.