By the peak of summer in 2020, around 40% of the workforce had been moved to remote and flexible working arrangements because of the COVID pandemic[1].  The rapid shift to flexible working, and the longevity of our secondment to home offices has created an international debate about the future of the workplace, and has caused many organisations to begin to explore potential longer-term adoption of more flexible approaches to work.

Flexible working means a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work, but as the remote/hybrid/onsite debate rages on elsewhere, let’s focus on flexible working in terms of hours and times for now.  For many, juggling home schooling, care giving responsibilities and other lockdown legacies meant that 9am to 5pm was just not a possibility, and companies accommodated this change.  But can this be sustained once lockdown has ended?

Some People or All People?

Jane van Zyl, Working Families chief executive, says that by offering flexible working employers can “harness the increases in productivity, talent attraction, and diversity that flexible working will bring to the UK economy”[2].

“We simply can’t go back to a time where long hours and being the last person in the office are seen as a mark of success,” she added.

But if businesses choose to return to ‘business as usual’, with their people in the office most of the time, will they still consider more flexible accommodations for their staff, such as occasional remote working?  Or flexible work hours to allow couples to both work full-time and still share child care responsibilities?  Will it be available to all staff, or only those with a certain level or title?

As has become Connect Three’s mantra in our articles throughout the pandemic, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.  The demands of your industry and how you operate, the nature of your marketplace, and the needs of your people will all inform your decision.

Benefits and Barriers to Flexible Working

The positives of a completely flexible workforce are both anecdotal and scientific.  It may be linked to higher productivity and job satisfaction, and by helping workers avoid the pressure of commuting at rush hour, companies can improve their people’s mental well-being, while also reducing the strain on the environment.  If not all staff are in the office at the same time then this could allow organisations to downsize their physical sites, or even close some of them altogether leaving more funding available for other improvements to help their people.

There are plenty of negatives as well - for instance, if leaders and their people are not working compatible hours, the lack of visibility can impact workers professionally, and if people begin to be in the minority, and are working in office when relatively few people are around, mental health may become an issue.  The social isolation caused by the pandemic has been a deciding factor in the rise in mental health problems the NHS has documented over the last 12 months.

So before considering how to implement flexible working, you need to speak with your people and decide if it's the right choice.

How do you Implement Flexible Working?

UK employment law sets out a number of minimum standards regarding flexible working with which employers must comply, so employers should make sure they’re aware of these when reviewing their flexible working arrangements. The CIPD has a wide range of resources and information on flexible working including case studies and information on the types of flexible working.

In their literature the CIPD highlights that when teams have a mix of virtual and physical working, organisations and their people managers need to “ensure fairness and consistency in the treatment of all employees whether working flexibly or not”, as well as ongoing communication and engagement.

Their recommendations for effective people management during flexible working include:

  • Effective communication to make sure all employees receive key messages, whether they are in the office or not.
  • Providing managers with guidance, training and support for managing remotely and ‘out of hours’.
  • Encouraging regular 1-2-1 or ‘check-in’ meetings to monitor wellbeing and reduce any feelings of isolation.
  • Fair workload distribution and regular reviews of workload and objectives.
  • Regular team meetings and social spaces to maintain connections and build relationships.

As well as this general advice. there is lots, and I mean lots, of existing and emerging research[3] that can help companies who are serious about implementing flexible working to create a viable organisational strategy, and ways to effectively manage and lead flexible workers. As Dr. Daniel Wheatley of University of Birmingham says:

“Truly embracing flexibility requires job design to be revisited in many cases, so that the focus is on deliverables and outputs rather than specific timing of work…
[Flexible Working] can enable the working day to be moulded for the dual benefit of worker and employer. However, this has to be carefully managed to ensure that workers are available when needed, but also are able to realise a separation and balance between home and work."[4]

 Flexible Working Will NEVER Be Available for Everyone

Finally, it should be acknowledged that remote and flexible working has been a privilege made available to those mostly in managerial and professional occupations.  With the notable exception of professionals in the healthcare and other essential industries, the 60% of the workforce unable to work remotely or flexibly tends to be from lower wage brackets.

Those whose job requires them to be in their workplace during certain hours, such as roles in manufacturing, delivery, retail and  hospitality roles will never discover the simple pleasure of conducting business at hours which suit your lifestyle and natural productivity levels.  This is the same demographic that was largely left unable to work, furloughed, redundant, or being forced to journey to a workplace during the pandemic.

So no matter how ‘mainstream’ flexible and remote working becomes, it is doubtful that it will ever become the majority solution.