While 2020 didn’t turn out quite the way any of us expected, what it did do was open up an important debate about how, where, when, and why we work. Now we’re at a tipping point where more people want to work flexibly for the long-term, but there’s also a huge variety in what people think that should look like. This debate has surfaced the interesting question of what we actually mean when we talk about flexibility – because it’s not just about remote working – as well as the dark side of remote work. Now is the perfect time to start having these frank conversations about what your employees actually want and need at an individual level.
The case for new flexibility and types of flexible working
The pandemic has really opened up conversations at work. The boundary between work and personal life has eroded and what we’ve been left with is stripped back authenticity. I’ve got to know people on an even deeper level; I’ve seen their homes, met their families, and spoken about real life.
Keeping up that dialogue of deeper understanding will be key to improving our approach to flexibility.
There are a lot of different ways that you can incorporate flexible working into your business, with popular examples including part-time working, job sharing, career breaks like sabbaticals, flexitime (where employees work a number of core hours – say 10am-3pm – but can choose when to start and finish work) and one that I’m sure is familiar to all of us now – remote working.
Other lesser known examples include term time working, compressed hours, (where people work the same hours but over a shorter period of time e.g. condensing a five-day working week into four days) and annualised hours, where employees work a set number of hours over the year, but when those hours are taken varies.
Taking these as examples (of which there are countless others), we can see how we can map what people need to what can be provided.
For example, do you have morning birds and night owls in your team? Maybe flexitime could be a good solution. Do you have working parents that you know have struggled to juggle homeworking with home schooling? This is the same situation they face every year during the summer – so maybe term-time working could help. Have people got new commitments that could be affected by commuting to work? Maybe remote work could solve the problem.
To graduate to a point of true flexibility I think it’s important to start thinking not from a point of ‘what can we offer?’ but to a point of ‘what models could people benefit from?’ Obviously, this needs to fit into your business model; not all types of flexibility are always appropriate. But we should all aim to reach a point where we can have these conversations openly and honestly.
Flexibility in the ‘new normal’
This reset of how we work has led to a lot of interesting new studies and experiments, with implications for how we structure our businesses moving forwards.
For example, there are a lot of studies that suggest remote working might be here for the long-term thanks to the pandemic. One survey by Huawei found that 88% of people want to continue working from home at least part-time, 60% want to work remotely at least three days a week and 17% don’t want to go back to the office at all.
But I also recently read that 57% of employees want an office closer to home, which might see the emergence of ‘hub and spoke’ models, where employers invest in smaller, local office spaces rather than more expensive city-based offices. It will be interesting to see how that fits into the remote working movement – do employees want home working or just less time commuting?
Another example is the rise of reduced hours brought about by the pandemic, with Spain now looking at becoming the first country to launch a trial of a four-day-working week. This project will be closely watched around the globe, as businesses and countries begin to experiment with the idea of reduced hours in the wake of COVID-19 and greater awareness of the benefits of flexibility to boost productivity, improve employee wellbeing and deliver a better work-life balance. Gartner’s Future of Work Trends Post-COVID-19, released last June, also cited the rise of new talent models, like 80% work for 80% pay, emerging as a result of the pandemic.
I also suspect that we will see more businesses trialling flexitime to support the return to work and stagger commuter traffic into offices.
But even at its best, flexible working might not be enough
One final word on flexible working. Before COVID-19, the mention of flexibility, and in particular home working, used to trigger a knee-jerk reaction that working outside the office equalled low productivity. While I think it’s safe to say that the last year has finally laid that debate to rest, I think we often overlook the dark side of remote working, which is actually not about underperformers at all, but about overachievers.
In my experience, the temptation to work long hours at home, to log-on at the weekend, to try and complete your to-do list, has actually been quite tough for those that are used to pushing themselves. The ones I’ve been having to watch haven’t been those that aren’t doing enough, it’s been those that are doing too much – that are putting pressure on themselves to do it all. When work is so easily accessible, we can risk glorifying overworking and they can have a trickle-down effect. A recent study by ADP Research Institute reported that people are putting in on average 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime every week (up from 7.3 hours a year ago) and one in ten are putting in more than 20 hours of unpaid work every week – double since the start of the pandemic.
I’ve had to be very conscious of the example I set as a member of the senior leadership team, and I’ve tried to be vocal that it’s okay to be juggling work with home schooling, to log off on time even if you haven’t made it through your to-do list, to have ‘off’ days.
I think any form of flexible working requires the same level of care and consciousness. Flexible working offers huge benefits for our productivity, our work-life balance, and our mental health, but that doesn’t mean it’s a silver bullet. We still need to pay attention to individuals and their personal needs and shape tailored flexible working around them.
This year has been a massive leap in the right direction, and I’m loving all the positive conversations I’m having both in Lorien and with our clients about how we can become more inclusive, more agile, and more supportive. When we start thinking at the individual level, and all of the options available to us, I think we have the opportunity to create something that works for everyone.