29th September 2020

Making flexible working work in the long term

In the wake of the lockdown, Group Director of Marketing and Communications, Lynda Thwaite, argues that we have a duty to explore how flexible working can work in the long term and rethink our office space. Does “building back better” also mean “working back smarter?"

The Covid-19 pandemic has been, and continues to be, a trying time for everyone. For businesses, the imposed lockdown has been a crash course in remote working, setting up suitable arrangements for people to carry on being productive from home, adopting new technologies to connect and adapting to new ways of interacting, almost overnight. If there ever was a silver lining for office-based workers, however, at this most distressing of times, it was the relief from the daily commute and the ability to be flexible through their working day.

But it would be wrong to assume that the transition was smooth and seamless. The sudden start of the crisis was far from the ideal scenario to accelerate flexible working in the workplace. In the circumstances, this felt more like an experiment in working remotely than a demonstration of the merits of flexible and agile working. Many of those fortunate enough to be able to operate from home were subject to spending longer hours in front of their laptop to absorb the workloads of colleagues who had found themselves on furlough, or worse, who were struck by the illness. For some, the rapid change meant that they barely had time to set up suitable space in their homes to work comfortably. And that’s without mentioning the anxiety of learning to live with a new threat and witnessing the daily progress of the virus and its devastating effects on the population.

As long-time flexible working campaigner, Anna Whitehouse, writes in “Why flexible working is the future,”published in Marie-Claire on 10th August 2020: “we’re not working from our homes remotely, we’re working at home in the context of a pandemic. They are very different. I continue to urge everyone to see this time as a period of enforced remote working, not flexible working. Trying to do your job with low WIFI and a child begging for your attention, as well coping with the grief of losing friends or family, is incomparable to having a proper flexible working set up.”

Anna makes a strong and compelling point. The myriad of daily constraints caused by the lockdown and the pandemic added stress to the normal professional demands, from finding a suitable working corner in a cramped house, to teaching kids at home, and caring for self-isolating loved ones.

On the whole, however, research shows that employees have emerged from the lockdown with a changed perspective about the office and, more importantly, want the opportunity to continue to work flexibly.

The BBC reports that 90% would continue to work from home, based on a survey of over 6,000 individuals, conducted by academics at Cardiff and Southampton Universities, with those working all their time at home reporting an increase in productivity.

Polling company YouGov conducted two focus groups for The Independent to understand how adults aged 25 to 43 were feeling about working from home during lockdown. The research, published on 25th June, showed that the participants’ perception was largely positive, with a majority admitting that they wanted to continue working from home more regularly. Saving time on their commute, having more time to spend with their family, and to do domestic chores and exercise topped the list of their motivations. Respondents also talked about a culture of trust being promoted and some felt they were more productive than working in an office environment.

According to another study conducted by video conferencing platform Whereby - which surveyed 1,500 respondents on how they expect working practices to change once lockdown measures lift – 82% of businesses are now considering allowing more staff to work remotely on a permanent basis. 

There is, therefore, a consensus across the board that the option to work flexibly is beneficial to both employers, by increasing productivity, and employees, by promoting a better work life balance and keeping the risk of burnout at bay.

As and when lockdown measures start to ease, it would be timely to investigate what sustainable flexible working measures would look like, once the Covid-19 threat has abated. Recently, though, the debate emerged about the need to encourage people back into the office. At the end of August, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that town and city centres would become permanent “ghost towns,” with dire consequences for the economy, if employers and the government didn’t act to persuade workers to return to their desks. But with cases of Covid-19 now on the rise again, local lockdown restrictions implemented across the country, and no tangible end in sight to the pandemic, the government has reversed its advice, encouraging people to work from home when they can, suggesting it is far too premature for everyone to go back to their normal routine.

Besides, aside from erring on the side of safety and wellbeing, there is inherently another reason to offer people the home working option. Just as the construction industry has pledged to “build back better”, would it not be wise to “work back smarter?”  As figures show that a majority of individuals would value the ability to choose whether they are working from home or going to the office, it would make sense to establish the ways in which we can make flexible working work for the future, for employees, for the companies, and for the evolution of our cities too.

We have a sterling opportunity to transform what has essentially been a very dark time in our collective history to rethink entirely the way we work, we interact, and what matters the most to us to build a more satisfying professional landscape, a level playing field where everyone is equal and empowered. In doing so, we also stand a much better chance to drive the inclusion agenda forward and close the gender pay gap. And it needn’t threaten the integrity and role of the existing office space either.  As Dr Jane Parry, a Visiting Fellow within the Centre for Research on Ageing at the University of Southampton, explains in “No, flexible working won’t mean the death of the office and the city:” offices can become a space where colleagues gather to think in groups, while the home remains a haven for undisturbed and productive work.

Of course, fundamentally, flexible working is about a lot more than just the ability to work remotely. It could potentially encompass a range of circumstances almost as diverse as there are people, offering everyone the ability to deliver at their full potential whatever their situation. A commitment that requires a level of trust, depth of vision and maturity of leadership that is currently too daunting for a lot of businesses.

As part of our commitment to the Flex Appeal campaign, we have supported research conducted by Claremont Communications throughout the lockdown to look at ways we can make flexible working work for the future. With hundreds of employers of all sizes and across all sectors involved, we look forward to presenting some impactful findings in the research report this autumn.    

Lynda Thwaite is Group Director of Marketing and Communications at Sir Robert McAlpine. She was a speaker at the Flexpo Conference last year. A staunch and tireless advocate for inclusion and equality, she is the Executive sponsor for Sir Robert McAlpine's Gender Inclusion Network, and also sits on the Ability Network, and the LGBT+ Network. 

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