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Flexible working: Lessons from the great work-from-home mass experiment

Rights: Flexible work should be extended to all employees from the start of their contracts PICTURE: VERA PETRUNINA/SHUTTERSTOCK

■ Jane Parry, lecturer in organisational behaviour and HRM, University of Southampton

FOR years, politicians and employers alike have talked up the promise of flexible working. And it looked like change was happening.

Last year, the UK government announced a consultation around whether flexible work should not just be available, but become employees’ default option, in its annual Queen’s Speech. But 2020 rapidly became a hugely different year in Westminster and flexible working rights seemingly ground to a halt at the political level.

In the end it took the Covid-19 pandemic, with its attendant government-enforced lockdowns, for working from home to sit at the centre of an unanticipated global experiment and to become the catalyst for a real discussion about flexible work.

The changes set in place this year have radically highlighted how employees’ diverse commitments and characteristics affect their work on a daily basis. And employers have taken vast strides in appreciating how well-managed flexibility keeps workforces productive. Working arrangements that reflect these differences and keep all staff motivated and working to their best effect will play a key role in organisations’ survival and ultimately the UK’s financial recovery.

But in this new world of work, organisations cannot afford to let flexible working arrangements remain a perk reserved for their higher-level staff after the pandemic.

Flexible working: It could be one of the many solutions for the UK’s current woes PICTURE: PTSTOCK/SHUTTERSTOCK

Unequal privilege

Before the pandemic, we knew that flexible work was an unequal privilege in organisations — that you were more likely to get it if your work was highly valued, or if you had a sympathetic manager. Organisations had found that an accepted opposition to flexible work requests was that certain jobs simply couldn’t be done remotely. And so many much-needed flexible work requests faltered.

Now this thinking has been disproved. We have seen that most formerly office-based jobs can be performed from home.

Our research suggests that many people even think they are more productive away from the distractions of the office — incredible as this seems, considering that lockdown offered no normal working from home conditions. Children and very often partners were at home too, competing for space and time.

Yet productivity gains are borne out by the organisational evidence from lockdown. Our Work after Lockdown survey, which I carried out with colleagues, found that nine out of ten people felt that they got more — or at least as much — done at home as they had in their offices. Seven out of ten people who responded to our survey want to continue to work from home at least part of the week after offices reopen.

It will therefore be difficult for the managers who had been so suspicious of working from home to reinforce standard business hours now that they have seen their employees going over and beyond their role expectations for month after month.

Employees: They should be able to schedule their time PICTURE: ANDREY_POPOV/SHUTTERSTOCK

We now find ourselves on the cusp of change. There is a desire for action and as organisations start to seriously engage for the first time in hybrid working, it’s becoming evident that this is not a binary discussion about whether work is performed in or outside of organisations. More important is how employees schedule their time and key to this is engaging with a much broader range of flexible working arrangements that reflect people’s different circumstances.

For so long, flexible work has lagged because organisations had not bought into its business case. Now, with the kind of looming recession that no one could have foreseen, the benefits of flexible work are very clear in the ability to help managers deal with complex working arrangements, maximise productivity and hold onto their skilled workforces when they will be most needed to weather the storm.

Sustaining productivity gains

It will be vital that flexible work is deployed in ways that are mutually beneficial to employees and employers. With workforce wellbeing at a low ebb during lockdown (our survey respondents scored 47.5 out of 100 on The World Health Organization’s wellbeing index), it is critical that employers respond quickly.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s review of the evidence collected from member countries in recent years concluded that remote workers’ wellbeing is important in sustaining productivity gains.

Lockdown has made managers more aware than ever of staff diversity, with different home circumstances, styles of working and personality characteristics. Managers got more creative with their fixes and in the process developed a more sophisticated sense of workforce needs.

One of the key recommendations driven by the first wave of findings in our ESRC-funded research is that the right to flexible work should be extended to all employees from the start of their contracts. This will help employers keep their valued staff working effectively through the next challenging period of recession, whilst also negotiating a new relationship with the EU.