The Great Home Working Experiment

It’s been described as a lightbulb moment where managers suddenly realised that jobs can be done flexibly, a turning point for equality at work. But has this really been the case?

Normally we’d implement home or flexible working in a strategic and organised way rather than sending everyone home and sorting it out after. What we’ve done in many instances is lift and shift what we do in the office to the home, rather than look at the way we work.
While it might not have been the most scientific of trials, some still hail the pandemic as a game changer for flexible working adoption.

CIPD research shows that the reality for many is quite different, however. Just under a fifth of respondents in a recent survey said their organisation did not offer any flexible working arrangements, while fewer than a third of employers planned to introduce more forms of flexible working (beyond home working) in the next six to 12 months. And while stories abound about toddlers crashing Zoom calls and managers holding meetings from their bedrooms, more than two in five (44 per cent) employees have not worked at home at all during the crisis, according to the CIPD.

What is clear is that we need to open our minds to the different types of flexibility we can offer in our businesses whether that’s a job share or giving staff more control over shifts.

In some ways, the sudden switch from the office has set the cause of flexible working back. Concerns about meeting deadlines and job security have led many working parents to put in a full shift of home schooling before starting an eight-hour workday in the afternoon, while there have been reports of extreme monitoring by managers who have demanded employees are ‘live’ on Zoom during normal working hours.

Anything about enforced home working isn’t the way we’d see true flexible working however what it has done, is break down the idea that only some jobs can be done from home. We’ve seen that work can be done productively and workarounds have been developed for some of the barriers that came up before. There have been elements of “making this up as we go along” especially when the lockdown restrictions first hit last March. We found ourselves in a situation we were unprepared for; we reacted, and we acted quickly. Normally in business there’s a precedent you can refer to – a previous recession for example, but not this time.

Flexible working should now be built into how we do business – even for roles that pre-Covid might have been argued as impossible to do flexibly. There are elements of job design and work patterns that lend themselves to flexibility – arguably office staff can work from home more easily than a construction manager who physically needs to be on site, for example. But we should be asking our employees to help us design our flexible working culture – to tell us how working patterns can be changed.

Many businesses are now turning to employee surveys to gauge how their staff want to work in a post-Covid world. These can focus on how employees wish to split their week, whether they’d feel more comfortable with more days in the office than at home, or vice versa.
Increasingly, we are seeing that employees are keen for a hybrid of home working, with time in the office for collaboration and cultural bonding, but this is where the challenge lies. This type of blended model can be hard to implement. We will need new ways to manage performance and to avoid ‘presence’ bias, as managers who are in the office will automatically default to the people they see.
For a lot of client-facing roles it will depend on what the customer wants, whereas other businesses are looking at how they advocate fair work, so for example, projects go to people based on their skills and experience, regardless of their working patterns or location. Business owners and managers are often the gatekeepers of (or barriers to) flexibility, and there needs to be a shift in focus within the business towards deliverables rather than counting hours. This mindset shift needs to happen before businesses can embrace true flexibility. Managers must get used to having proper conversations with employees rather than dropping in on them and to rely on outputs without observing them – much like they have been doing with the increased regularity of contact they’ve had to have with their teams over the course of the pandemic.

So, what does this mean for existing policies around flexible working and how employees request it? One of the challenges is that policies and approaches have often been built around working time expectations that date back to the industrial revolution. We’re moving beyond the 9 to 5 when we all had to go to the same place at the same time to ‘do work’; technology has allowed us to do that. People have been using this time to discover they’re a morning person, or they come alive at 10pm or they like working in short bursts. We will never embrace flexible working until we embrace asynchronous working. The businesses that offer true flexible working will be the ones willing to be creative and try things out. Ultimately it will come down to business owners and managers having a unified view of what things should look like and having conversations early on with their employees about working patterns so these can be built into how teams and projects are resourced.

Employers should also be aware that flexible working could become the default for all jobs in the UK, under proposed legislation being considered by the UK government. The most important consequence will be that employees will no longer be expected to use their right to request flexible working for an employer to consider, as is currently the case.

Under the Flexible Working Bill, introduced by Conservative MP Helen Whately, employers would have to make flexible working a characteristic of all job roles – flexible in some way or other, unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be carried out in a flexible way.

If you need any further information on the types of flexible working practices that you could consider, or support with how to implement these, please get in touch and one of our experienced HR team will be happy to advise you.