The Strength in Flexibility
Since the first instruction for employees to “work from home where possible” in March 2020, workplaces have faced many challenges. Pre-pandemic figures from the ONS show only 5% of the workforce worked from home in 2019. Many employers seemed reluctant to facilitate any increase in this statistic, despite indications that employees were seeking more options regarding their place and times of work.
Then the pandemic hit. Workplaces already embracing a degree of flexibility had a footprint they could adapt and expand, quickly enabling their business to continue functioning. However employers who had been opposed to flexible working now faced a dilemma – how do they keep their employees safe and follow government guidelines, whilst enabling their business to continue to operate?
Benefits of Flexibility
An unintended result of the pandemic is that being highly adaptable has been rewarded in more significant ways than ever before and flexibility has become a key strength found in the best examples of workplace relationships.
Team members have had to navigate a wide range of personal circumstances, in the context of varying experiences of the virus itself and many have really appreciated the flexibility that home-working has afforded them. This has been instrumental in their ability to carry on working, whilst supporting their household and also protecting their health.
To complement this, employers have needed their staff to deliver tasks outside of their usual remit, communicate in new ways and work with an increased reliance on technology. Without their employees’ commitment to offer flexibility in the face of so much change, many businesses would have suffered much more.
So how can this flexibility continue to strengthen workplaces, as we emerge from the more restrictive periods of the pandemic, into the next stages of the roadmap? Will the ‘old ways’ of working be expected to quickly reappear, or can some of the adaptations made during this period of extensive home-working endure?
There are many benefits that have been reported by employees in respect of the move to home-working - greater autonomy, reduced commuting times, reduced costs for travel and the ability to be more present and involved with family or wellbeing activities. However, it is also evident that there is a sense of exhaustionthat working from home has created and there is a growing desire for a return to offices, along with the perceived improvements that can bring – a greater sense of connectedness to colleagues, increased collaboration and more regular informal touch points between team members.
The CIPD have recently published a report Embedding new ways of working post-pandemic considering ways in which organisations can move forward and the emergence of the term hybrid-working is gaining ground. This typically includes a combination of working from various locations, be it home and/or an office space, and allows a greater degree of flexibility than workplaces experienced prior to 2020.
The benefits of hybrid-working appear to combine the positive elements home-working has offered, whilst reintroducing some of the advantages that bringing teams together under one roof has provided in the past.
So how can organisations who are considering their transition from the present to the future, make the most of this opportunity?
Ways to Adapt
Communicate with your teams – understanding your employees’ views about how homeworking has impacted them, will ensure you have a good grasp on the diverse opinions within your organisation. Everyone’s needs will vary. For some, a return to the office cannot come soon enough and they may wish to minimise any further periods of working from home. For others, home-working may have become their preference and they may be reluctant to return to the office. Communication around times of change is critical to helping everyone understand and engage with the process and ultimately, ensure the success of any solutions implemented.
Consider policies and procedures – what were initially short-term, temporary measures, may now need to be structured within new or refreshed policies and procedures. This ensures a shared understanding and will help bring new employees on board quicker too. Being able to formalise what your organisation will offer, in terms of flexibility, may open up your pool of candidates for future recruitment projects and enhance your position as an employer of choice. Minister for Women & Equalities, Liz Truss, has called for employers to make flexible working a standard option, to “help level-up the UK, boost opportunities for women and reduce geographic inequality”.
Embrace and support improved technology – while slow and intermittent internet connections may have caused more than a few frustrating disruptions to your online meetings over the past few months, without this technology most office-based staff would have found working from home impossible. Now that the future looks more reliant on these tools, it would be a good time to ensure your training programmes are up-to-date and any training needs are identified and addressed. Closing the gaps in technical knowledge across your teams will support greater inclusion.
Focus on Wellbeing – supporting your employee’s mental health now and into the future will be a critical priority. Focussing your strategy on prevention, rather than reaction will help you to minimise the negative impacts on motivation, performance and absenteeism. The emerging effects of Long COVID and its impact on mental health is something that workplaces will need to consider and managers should be given updated guidance on how to handle these discussions effectively. Overall, the increased levels of trauma and stress brought on by the pandemic and its knock-on consequences, will be felt across society for a long time to come and employers should be preparing to engage with employees and be ready to offer support.
Strength in Flexibility
The discussions about how organisations move forward will continue to evolve over the coming weeks and months. Listening to and learning from each other will provide a valuable insight in planning and implementing new ways of working successfully (Forever Flex Report is a great place to begin).
Whilst the vaccination programme, testing and lifting of restrictions will shortly make working from an office a possibility again, it seems unlikely that employees will be able to fully revert back to their previous methods of working straight away. Increased infection rates in localised areas and school bubble closures may mean that working from home at times continues to be a necessity. As some team members eagerly start the countdown for the return to their office, others will have an increasing sense of anxiety at the prospect.
Throughout this period, where flexibility has been offered by both employees and their employers there has been a strengthening of relationships and an improvement in outcomes. Long-standing barriers that previously held back the wave of change required for a more flexible approach to work have been burst open and, with that, we hope organisations can now make the most of the positive opportunities this may generate.