Will global isolation alter how we value work-life balance in the workplace?

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Will global isolation alter how we value work-life balance in the workplace?
Bryony Kelly

Will global isolation alter how we value work-life balance in the workplace?

With an estimated quarter of the world under lockdown, companies across the globe are engaged in a radical experiment of company-wide, enforced home working. But will this new working pattern stick? And will this change our perception of what ‘good work-life balance’ looks like, when the barriers to work and play are finally lifted?

Despite ever-growing demand for flexible and remote working opportunities, just 30% of people worked from home in 2019 in the UK. Now, with an estimated quarter of the world under lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies across the globe are engaged in a radical experiment of company-wide, enforced home working. But will this be the saviour or the saboteur of flexible working campaigns? Will this new working pattern stick? And will this change our perception of what ‘good work-life balance’ looks like, when the barriers to work and play are finally lifted?

The debate on flexible working

Demand for flexible working arrangements has risen steadily over the years to become an influencing factor in employment choices, with 81% of people saying that flexible working would make a job more attractive to them, and 35% saying they would value flexible working over a pay rise. This demand has also been backed up by our own research – set for publication later this month – which finds that good work-life balance, flexible working and remote working consistently rank as top motivators for job hunters.

There’s good reason for this demand, too. With countless studies and surveys acting as ammunition, flexible working has been shown to boost productivity and profit, improve mental health and lead to better job satisfaction and morale. In fact, 94% of respondents to a Deloitte survey said they would benefit from workplace flexibility, citing less stress/improved mental health and better integration of work and personal life as top reasons. In an often hectic world, flexibility can alleviate some of the tensions between work and personal life.

So, why do 20% of employees have no flexible arrangements available to them in their current role, and why are two-thirds unable to access the flexibility they want to (such as flexi-time at 70%, compressed hours at 58% and working from home at 49%)?

It seems to come from a belief that flexibility is shirking. According to Deloitte, nearly 30% of professionals say potential consequences to their professional growth and lack of trust from leadership would prevent them from taking up flexible work options. 80% agree that a traditional work setting – such as regular office attendance and normal business hours is important for advancing their career. And these fears don’t seem to be unfounded. Research from CIPD finds that reducing hours can hit career opportunities, while homeworkers are more likely to overwork – perhaps to compensate for doubts over output. By contrast, 86% of flexible workers in a Morgan McKinley survey stated that their remuneration had not been affected by working flexibly.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems that the question of workplace flexibility was already a thorny one, without the added pressure of global and economic turmoil.

So, is it a case of being careful what you wish for?

Will isolation reverse thoughts on flexible working?

Already, we have proven the concept that for the vast majority of businesses, working from home as a whole is possible. If businesses then begin to see the promised benefits of flexible working, in addition to the cost benefits of a reduced office footprint and the environmental benefits of less footfall, the tables may turn.  

But interestingly, feelings over flexible working could go the other way for workers. It is ironic that some of the most strongly held arguments for workplace flexibility – such as improved mental health – have become the battering ram against remote working recently. The effects of long-term isolation, such as anxiety, depression or loneliness, are concerning for many employers. Businesses rely on different minds coming together to create, communicate and collaborate on ideas. Without ‘togetherness’, morale can dip and energy fizzle.

Recent research by Leesman has indicated that the UK is one of the least prepared countries to cope with home-working, with many businesses facing a dent in their productivity and innovation over the course of the pandemic. According to the research, the main risks with home-working include a reduction in sense of community (-11.8%), social interaction (-10.3%), knowledge transfer (-10.0%), learning from others (-13.0%) and informal collaboration (-5.4%). Almost three-quarters of employers are concerned by the long-term effects of working in isolation for their employees.

But this could be attributed to the lack of familiarity with home-working for many individuals – the research also highlights that 55% of UK workers have little or no experience of working from home, 79% only work from home for one day a week or less, and only 1% work from home for more than four days per week. In addition, only 41% have a dedicated room to work from and 39% don’t even have a designated workstation or desk.

But despite all this, recent research suggests that the experiment in remote working has been a success. 65% of businesses haven’t seen a drop-off in productivity, and 18% feel their staff have been more productive. Meanwhile, 63% think their staff are happier.

And yet, only 40% said they would consider remote working policies in the future – despite 94% saying they were able to adapt to the new world thanks to tech and 69% rating the trial a success. So, uncertainties around flexible and remote working still seem to stick, even when they’re proven to work.

The businesses that already advocated homeworking – with the infrastructure, support and parameters in place to facilitate it – may be the ones best adapted to this new world. And therefore these are also the businesses most likely to adopt and even encourage flexible working once it’s back to business-as-usual, after seeing the promised benefits on a larger scale.

Meanwhile, businesses that have historically been reluctant to endorse home-working may be more likely to bounce back to familiar routines – convinced that home-working has been tried, tested, and found wanting.

For these businesses it’s important to recognise that the events that have led to mass home-working are fairly unique. Add to this general instability, with ground rules changing on an almost daily basis, external pressures such as childcare or supporting a vulnerable person, and an almost total absence of the ‘life’ part of work-life balance, and this is hardly a fair experiment for the potential of flexible working. Anxiety, uncertainty and distractions typify the current experience of flexible working for many at the moment, and there is little stability or structure, even for those most at home with home working.

Reimagining work-life balance

Work-life balance and flexibility mean different things to different people, but often we use the terminology in a fairly narrow way. Flexibility can mean remote working, flexi-time, unconventional hours, compressed hours or simply the freedom to adapt the workday to accommodate the unexpected. But it can also mean more than that.

Three in five employees work longer hours than they would like to, and this doesn’t seem to change even with remote working or homeworking. When you consider that 77% of employees have experienced burnout in their current role, and 83% say this affects their personal relationships, it seems clear that there needs to be a broader conversation about what work-life balance means. In fact, 70% of professionals feel that their employer is not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout in their organisation, even though the number of global job posts offering ‘workplace flexibility’ on LinkedIn has increased by 78% since 2016.

It has become evident that better work-life balance is necessary, but also that the conversation is broader than whether we work as well flexibly – it’s about whether work and life pressures are balanced themselves. In this unusual situation, the pressures at home – caring for the vulnerable, balancing childcare, maintaining health and fitness, looking after mental health, socialisation – are laid bare. And the reality is that work is just that. Life matters more.

The strangeness of the situation does not mean we should sweep the wider debate over work-life balance under the carpet. Because now – in this time of strain and pressure – is where we find our humanity. When a business supports flexible working, it’s not about simply offering remote working or flexi-time to boost business results. It’s about removing judgements around the need for flexibility, and bringing context and understanding to the reasons behind the requests. Work-life balance is about harmony, care and compassion. And whether a business sticks or twists on flexible working in the future, it’s important not to forget where we are now. 

Despite these unprecedented times, Lorien and the work we do for our clients remains constant. If you are looking for the tech talent to drive your business forward, reach out to us. We can provide support with video interviewing and remote onboarding, and are currently offering our Recruiter-on-Demand solution at a reduced cost to bolster in-house teams facing recruitment spikes or periods of absence.

Contact us at solutions@lorien.co.uk or on 0207 654 1000 for more information.

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