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COVID-19: what lockdown has taught us about flexible working

6 min read | 26 October, 2020 By Nick Hardy

    

Breathe’s CEO, Jonathan Richards recently co-hosted a webinar with Julia Waltham, Joint Head of Policy and Influencing at Working Families, a UK charity which provides employers with the tools, guidance, and policies required to build flexible and family-friendly cultures.

Julia and Jonathan were joined by Harvey Tilley, COO, Independent Living Fund Scotland and Kate Kennedy, HR Manager, Warmworks. They discussed the findings of research Working Families carried out recently to examine evolving employer attitudes to flexible working, in a year when so many people have faced the challenge of meeting their responsibilities as parents and carers while continuing to work.

Flexible and remote working

Flexible working and productivity

Implementing flexible working policies

Shared caring duties

The Good Work Plan

Additional resources for your business 

Flexible and remote working

In September 2020, Working Families surveyed 26 UK employers and found that there has been a general leap forward in flexible working during the pandemic compared to pre-COVID. While just under half (49 per cent) of organisations said that at least half of their staff flexed their hours before the crisis, this jumped to 85 per cent during the coronavirus crisis. 

The figures also showed that many organisations planned to continue flexible working when the pandemic came to an end. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of employers planned to allow most staff to continue flexing their hours, and nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) expected to allow most employees to work at least partly remotely. 

Before the pandemic only a quarter (25 per cent) of employers said half their staff worked partly remotely, but this increased to 84 per cent of during lockdown. 

Flexible working and productivity

25 out of the 26 employers Working Families spoke to felt that productivity had been the same or better than usual during lockdown. This suggests that the increase in the number of employers planning to extend remote working and flexible working practices implemented as a result of lockdown is due to business leaders seeing output and productivity remain the same or even increasing during the pandemic.

Employers questioned by Working Families attributed employees’ ability to maintain or even improve productivity to many factors, including emphasis on trust and outputs rather than presenteeism, existing familiarity with remote and agile working, reduced commute times, working hours that suited employees, and efficient technology.

Commenting on the research, Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said that while lockdown was a challenging time for many working parents and carers, a “silver lining” had emerged. Employers had realised flexible working arrangements were possible in “more jobs than they had ever considered before”, she said, adding that she encouraged other employers to “follow their example and harness the gains” flexible working offered. 

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Implementing flexible working policies

Our webinar panelists agreed that although the research findings were positive, there is still work to be done in terms of promoting the benefits of flexible working above and beyond allowing remote and home working.

It was also agreed that there are practical challenges involved in introducing flexible working and rolling this out within an organisation. There is not a one size fits all approach for various reasons including:

  • People have different levels of caring responsibilities. A parent or carer who looks after three toddlers under the age of five, for instance, may require more support than someone responsible for older, more independent children.
  • Although working from home works well for some people, others can find it a struggle. For some it can become ‘living at work’ with no buffer between a person’s work and home life. It’s therefore essential to help homeworkers create a distance, stick to agreed working hours avoid working outside of these.
  • Some people like and need the workplace. Again, it helps create the distance – literally and psychologically – between home and work. Many people thrive as a result of the social aspect of being with other people. Ideally, flexible working should provide people with the opportunity to work remotely or in an organisation’s workplace.
  • Based on what a business does, remote working is sometimes not a feasible option. Many manual, hospitality, retail and industrial workers, for instance, have no option but to work on-site. On the other hand, the broader principles of remote working such tailoring people’s working hours to the time they spend on caring duties can be applied in some circumstances.
  • Employees who do not have caring responsibilities and are not eligible for flexible working may resent colleagues for whom this is an option. It’s therefore to important to create a positive business culture which encourages people within a company to be mutually understanding and supportive of each other, whatever their responsibilities and duties of care.

Shared caring duties

Culture is also important in terms of opening flexible working options to men as well women. In some organisations, there persists a belief that caring duties are exclusively a female responsibility.

Working Family’ research revealed that two-thirds (68 per cent) of employers reported male parents and carers had shown more interest in flexible working since the pandemic hit. Hopefully, this number will increase further with more men feeling comfortable to request flexible working without worry this could have a negative impact on their career prospects.

The Good Work Plan

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many businesses have had to fundamentally re-think the way they operate, manage their people and enable them to work flexibly. Many businesses were already on their way to implementing flexible working before the crisis. Long before people were even aware of COVID-19, the government had announced the launch of The Good Work Plan with the stated aim:

To ensure that workers can access fair and decent work, that both employers and workers have the clarity they need to understand their employment relationships, and that the enforcement system is fair and fit for purpose".

Although The Good Work Plan has been overshadowed by the crisis, it was and is an important milestone in the adoption of flexible working. If there is anything good which can come out of this difficult year, hopefully it will be the widespread acceptance that flexible working is good for people and good for business and is something that is here to stay-  long after the crisis has ended.

Additional resources for your business

Working Families provide a number of factsheets and other resources which are available from their website.

We regularly write about flexible working and other aspects of people management in Breathe's blog which is updated on a regular basis.

Finally, the 2020 Breathe Culture Economy Report examines the benefits to developing positive, including and progress workplace cultures which bring out the best in people.

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Posted on 26 October, 2020

By Nick Hardy

in Flexible Working

Tag Flexible Working

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