Taking the temperature of the economy two years into the pandemic : Are people in the UK returning to traditional workplaces?
According to the latest data from the ONS, 60% of the UK’s working population had returned to pre-pandemic travel-to-work patterns in early March 2022. Around 12% said they worked exclusively from home in the previous seven days, around 14% said they followed a hybrid pattern (both worked from home and travelled to work), and 15% worked neither from home nor their normal place of work (due to, for example, illness, leave, etc).
However, these are aggregate statistics. There are big differences between types of jobs and localities.
The data visualisation above illustrates the geographical and socio-economic patterns. Each bubble represents a local authority in the UK. The bubble size indicates total population and the colour the type of geography in question, i.e. whether a place is (primarily) a large city, large town, smaller town, or village. The X-axis shows the average education level of the population aged 16–64 in each local authority (in 2018) and the Y-axis shows the degree to which mobility to workplaces in March was still below pre-pandemic levels.
Several points jump out. First, there is a strong correlation between lower education levels and higher levels of return to traditional workplaces. In line with McKinsey’s previous research, jobs that require a physical presence at a particular premises are typically less likely to require high levels of education. For example, warehouse operatives do not typically require high levels of education but do require physical presence. Of course, every job is different, but on average, education levels correlate with ability to do remote work.
Second, there are a few areas where return to work has been less, or more, pronounced than the regression line in the chart would predict. Londoners (teal blue bubbles) have on average been particularly likely to work from home. This could be partly due to long commuting times and the significant time savings from working remotely. Similarly, people in medium-sized towns (orange bubbles) have been less likely to return to pre-pandemic travel-to-work patterns. In contrast, people in villages or similar (deep blue bubbles) have been travelling to work more than city-dwellers.
Third: not a single local authority has a workplace mobility index at, or above, its pre-pandemic levels. So, despite the individuals who can work from home being in a minority, a significant shift has taken place across the entire UK.
Finally, the current overall proportion of remote work is remarkably close to early estimates of the proportion of working hours that could productively be performed from home. The McKinsey Global Institute analysed the 2,000 tasks that make up the 800 or so occupations and put that figure at 33% in the UK. If we exclude people who didn’t work at all, the proportion of people who did at least some work remotely in early March was 30% — very close to the task-based estimate.
So, are hybrid and remote working here to stay? Well, it looks like the answer is a pretty definitive “yes”. But it is worth remembering that this only applies to the 30% or so of people whose jobs can be performed remotely. For the rest, at least that aspect of their jobs is, in fact, “back to normal”.