Will COVID Drive a Flexible Working Revolution?

COVID is not under control yet but those who have been able to work remotely through the lockdowns have established new work practices. Some of these have been seen as beneficial to workers while still being good for productivity. Essentially, it’s been an extended field test that has challenged the arguments against working from home. So, although some will be anxious to escape the lockdown isolation, 2020 will be seen as a watershed moment when working practices changed for good.

female professional works from home

Major financial centres reflect a perceived status on those who work there. London probably reached its zenith in the early 2000s when people were quite happy to commute daily and stay late to work or socialise. Even an out of hours call from work was a welcome novelty that made people feel important. Mobile phones weren’t so prevalent back then and nobody was walking around with email inboxes in their pockets. Now that Blackberries have been and gone, most city workers are permanently “on-call” and, as work starts to dominate life to a greater extent, many people are seeking to redress the balance.

Flexible Working

In recent years, flexible working has become a more prevalent deal-breaker for some job seekers. As a result, many people, especially women in mid-level to senior roles, have been able to spend more time away from their offices. There is a caveat that management and team leadership need to be performed in person but for knowledge-based or origination roles, there is an acceptance that inflexible presenteeism doesn’t provide any real advantage for employer or employee. This has seen more companies feeling the pressure to offer flexible working options as part of their talent attraction and retention policies.

With COVID forcing widespread lockdowns, it has been demonstrated that remote working can be successful. Commuters have more hours in their days and money in their pockets. Parents become less dependent on childcare and there is more time for people to exercise, cook from scratch and benefit from nature, fresh air and sunshine. Essentially there is more time to live. Some people perform better outside of a rigid hourly structure, delivering bursts of high productivity at times that suit. The vast majority of office workers claim that at the very least, their productivity has been unaffected when working remotely. Reuters recently reported that technology leaders in Financial Services expect a global doubling of permanently remote staff having seen unexpected productivity increases during 2020.

The Downsides of Remote Working

There can be downsides at the individual level. During lockdown, there is the challenge for some people of joining a new employer and trying to manage a team they haven’t met in person. For teams that were together before the restrictions, the challenge is still real although more easily negotiated. The remote working skills learned in 2020 will prove valuable but although they enable greater flexibility, 100% remote management won’t be considered best practice after lockdown. The evidence also tends to suggest that those who are seeking new responsibilities and promotions really need to attend company sites.

After lockdown, there will still be a lack of engagement when working apart. For some people this makes work feel less meaningful, an aspect of professional life that many would value over work-life balance. Others miss the social aspect and the buzz of the city. With work and employees being accessible through multiple devices some also report feeling that they are living at work rather than working from home (you can’t even escape on holiday without a level of discipline).

The trust that has been built up in 2020 when workers have demonstrated their ability to complete tasks and perform functions away from the office will tend to evaporate when remote working becomes optional; some people just can’t get past the clocking-on mentality that came in with the advent of the cotton mills. Working from home is more attractive the bigger your house is and the fewer children it contains during working hours. For some people, a home working set-up can use up a lot of valuable space, be unergonomic and have even more distractions than the office. All of these factors can lead to a deterioration in mental health that employers are more acutely aware of than ever before. The result is that although flexible working will be offered, it shouldn’t be made compulsory. For the IT workers who seem best suited to permanent remote working, there should certainly be some personal effort to build up protective barriers that stop their roles being transferred to cheaper overseas consultants.

The Corporate Angle

From a corporate perspective, there are several things to consider. Having seen how remote working can be productive, question marks arise about the true value of expensive city real estate. Despite the downsides, surveys have found that as many as 91% of office workers would like to be able to work from home at least some of the time. With MERS, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu and Ebola all having broken out in the past 20 years, COVID will be the one that makes pandemics feature more highly on western, corporate risk registers and contingencies will be put in place. Business continuity has already been transformed this year and we could see a greater decentralization of functions and real estate portfolios as a result. It will be easier to maintain readiness for remote working if it is supported on an on-going basis with more heavily regulated functions able to use satellite locations.

The Future

Flexible working was already high on the agenda for HR departments but was generally presented as a benefit in contract negotiations. There will be some concern that as flexible working becomes more commonplace, it will become an expectation and cease to be a bargaining chip. Innovations like 6-hour days and 4-day weeks have also been shown to potentially increase productivity. What will people start asking for next? Also, not every role can be performed remotely or on a limited hours basis. HR will need to manage the disparity within organisations and departments. These challenges may be hypothetical for now but could be faced in the near future if 2020 ushers in the changes that the corporate world is expecting.

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