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Human Resources

Flexible working post-COVID: focus on productivity, teamwork and communication

Published 26 May 2021 in Human Resources • 5 min read

Every job should be flexible unless there is a business reason for it not to be, argues Sam Smethers. But when work takes up permanent residence in your home, you need to ask these key questions in order to protect worker productivity and wellbeing. 

As we reach the end of the strict “stay at home” instruction in the UK, opinion seems to be polarizing on whether working from home has become the new normal or whether we are all desperate to return to the office 9-5 with its associated commute.  

The Chancellor, closely followed by the Prime Minister, (no doubt driven by the prospect of permanently hollowed-out city centers and a financially unviable transport network), have both declared that employees cannot wait to get back to their offices and face-to-face meetings. While that may be true for some, many employers appear to be moving in the opposite direction.  

Nationwide has announced it will allow 13,000 office staff to work from home from now on and Lloyds Bank have shifted 700 staff to permanent home-working arrangements with the rest benefiting from agile working. JP Morgan is expecting 30% of its 257,000 global workforce to work from home in future.  

The remote working genie has indeed left the bottle, as more and more of us have realized that we can both be more productive and less stressed when working from home. For those in front-line roles which simply cannot be performed from home, at best this working from home revolution passes them by; at worst, it will force some of them out of a job because the permanent closure of some large office spaces in our city centers will render unviable all the associated service-sector businesses.  But even for those front-line roles, it should be possible to at least flex hours if not location. Overall, this is unquestionably a moment of transformational change. Pre-pandemic, just one in five jobs in the UK were advertised as flexible working. A recent Ipsos MORI survey of businesses for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in the UK found that pre-COVID, 79% of employers said there staff were entirely office-based, but just 28% expect that to be the case in the future and 47% expect to operate a hybrid working model where people split their working time between work and home.   

For those of us who have long campaigned for every job to be made flexible unless there is a business reason for them not to be, this is a satisfying moment. It is well-evidenced that giving people more choice and control over their working lives makes them more productive, fosters loyalty, improves recruitment and retention rates and enhances staff wellbeing.  But this is only part of the picture.  When work takes up permanent residence in your home, that has implications for the way we separate our work and home lives. Without the tube journey or the car ride, where does work end and home life begin? If you have a dedicated space for your home-office set-up you have already effectively created some delineation between those two worlds.  But if you are in your 20s, living in a house-share, confined to one room most of the time, probably with a dodgy Wifi connection, it can become an isolating prison that happens to pay your wages, while all the fun of your job has gone.  

For some time now, technology has made it possible for us all to be continually “switched on” and available.  But that has a real cost to our mental health and work-life balance.  In a world where those boundaries between work and home have been removed, we rapidly discover we need to create some of our own.  In the UK research shows that working parents, disproportionately mothers, have borne the brunt of months of school closures and loss of childcare, and combined working at home with home-schooling their children.  Dads are doing more too, but mothers are doing the lion’s share. Research shows this is already driving some mothers out of their jobs while for others the adverse impact on their wellbeing is significant. 

So, as we start to return to our workplaces, here are some reflections. Center staff wellbeing, including your own. Hopefully, this will already have been a major focus for employers over the last 12 months. But returning to “normal” will be a difficult transition for many, provoking anxiety.  Offer additional counselling or coaching support and keep offering it, create time for people to get together early on, just to socialize and re-orientate themselves. If some staff can make it back to the office, but others are less able to, don’t assume a lack of commitment and beware the risk of discriminating against mothers or carers. 

Focus on communication, both to manage the transition and to develop good working arrangements going forward. Reassure staff that you understand how they might be feeling. Recognize that returning to the workplace will be really welcome for some, but for others it will be difficult.  Consult people on what the new flexible working regime might be. Listen to them.  If it’s a hybrid model does that require everyone to be in the workplace together for at least part of the time?  Be clear what the business reason is for any arrangement you put in place and be open to making changes based on staff feedback. 

If you haven’t already done so, set boundaries and be clear with staff that it is important for them to set boundaries too. We have to give people permission, and the power, to switch off. By valuing and seeing the person you will get more for the organisation.   

Finally, consider these questions: 

  • Are you clear about how you measure productivity?   
  • Are you taking the opportunity to reimagine your organisation or business or just reverting to pre-pandemic model?  
  •  Are you fostering and rewarding the right attitudes and behaviors in your team going forward and demonstrating them yourself?  

Qualities such as resilience, emotional intelligence and empathy, good team working and communication are what you are going to need in the months and years ahead.  We are living through uncertain and turbulent times. Above all, employers are going to need staff who can help them navigate their way through. 

Authors

Sam Smethers

Former Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society

Sam Smethers is the former Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, the leading UK charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights.  She has twelve years’ experience as a charity chief executive and is now freelancing to help organisations to grow their impact. 

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