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Are You Ready for Long-term Flexible Working?

Gemma Dale ( Flexible Working) and Tim Ringo ( Solving the Productivity Puzzle) continue the discussion from their  Off The Page  event, covering work-life balance, presenteeism and how your organization must change to make long-term flexible working successful for organizational and individual performance.

Q: In 2019, 7% of the UK workforce was working from home. This has recently increased to 50% of the UK population. Do you anticipate that this will continue to rise in the next year?

GD: This number (at the end of April and at the peak of lockdown restrictions) represented almost everyone who could work from home – possibly excluding those who were on furlough leave from their employers. So, I don’t think we will see a significant rise, but we might see it becoming more normalized.

At the time of writing, employees in the UK are expected to work from home for many more months. As homeworking continues, we also continue to develop new habits, learn new ways of working and overcome the barriers. It is, in my opinion, unlikely that we will ever return to a time where working from home was undertaken by just 7% of the UK workforce.

TR: It depends on how we define “working from home”. Full-time working from home, or part-time? Full-time working at home, I think will be significantly less than 50%, but certainly more than 7%, post-pandemic.

However, part-time working from home will remain popular and much more accepted by managers, than before the pandemic. This category could very possibly stay at or go above 50%. This mix of working at the office and at home will, in my opinion, improve quality of life and increase productivity and engagement.

Q: How would you recommend an organization get started with introducing flexible working policies?

TR: First of all, I would recommend doing a Strategic Workforce Plan to understand the motivations, skills as well as the supply and demand for the efforts of your workforce. This should be for the short term (next 1-2 months) and medium-term (2 to 12 months). Doing this will help you understand what scope there is for flexible working.

From there I would recommend a workforce survey to understand peoples’ attitudes to flexible working. Once these things are established, a programme can be designed, and I would encourage doing a pilot, to test the design and get feedback. If this is all good, then the next step is to roll out the plan fully to the relevant workforces.

GD: One of the most helpful things that an employer can do right now is talk to their people. Before the pandemic, my advice would have been slightly different, but now organizations have a huge amount of data available that is specific to them and their people. So, ask them! What has gone well? What have they enjoyed about working from home? What needs more work or attention? What would they like to move away from or stop completely? When, hopefully, we reach the time that restrictions and social distancing can end, what do they want to come back to the office for and how best can the office be used with all the new learning that we have?

One thing to be mindful of is that policies that only follow the legal minimum are unlikely to provide the sort of change that employees want. We have to go further than that. We need a policy – we also need to ensure that we set out guidelines and new expectations to go along with it.

Q: Do you think a strong company culture and vision is more important for the future?

GD: They have always been important and remain so. One risk of long term homeworking when it is almost a permanent feature (as it currently is as a result of government advice and restrictions) is that people may feel less connected to their colleagues or the wider organization. Culture is often described as ‘the way we do things around here’ – and this can shift when ‘around here’ isn’t a physical place.

We must also remember that whilst we are still in the middle of this global pandemic, many are dealing with a range of personal and professional challenges. A strong positive culture and vision can help to unite people, remind them of their contribution and provide purpose.

Here in the UK, we have had millions of people on the furlough scheme – out of their workplace entirely. Others, in the months to come, will work fewer hours as a result of other government support schemes. Vision and culture can help those employees regain their sense of connection to work and organization in these circumstances.

TR: I do think it is important, but what I think is just as, or even more important, is to define the organization’s mission and purpose. Culture and vision provide the framework for how the organization works together, but mission and purpose are why people come to work for you and stay. An inspiring mission helps you attract the best talent and becomes your employer ‘brand’ to those on the inside and outside of the organization. This can be very powerful, if done correctly.

Q: Are there any common mistakes you see when HR professionals are introducing flexible working or managing flexible teams that you would advise against?

TR: The biggest mistake I see is making working from home a binary choice. You are either a designated home worker, and do not have the same office privileges as those who work in the office, or working from home is not an option. The best answer is somewhere in between, in my experience. Giving as much choice as possible makes flexible working a more natural part of working.

GD: One of the main problems from a policy perspective is sticking to the statutory framework for flexible working. This was designed to help individual employees make an application – not to support a culture of flexible working or drive culture change.

The other mistake is not providing enough support or training for managers on how to manage differently. This includes how to communicate, review performance and encourage a sense of team working. Where this support isn’t provided it can lead to a number of problems including team conflict, marginalization of flexible workers and reduced collaboration.

Q: Flexible working takes away the pressure of presenteeism – do you anticipate this having a positive impact on performance and wellbeing? If so, how?

GD: I am not sure I entirely agree. It might stop a certain kind of presenteeism (traveling to the office when sick) but people who work from home also tend to take fewer sick days than office-based staff – but this doesn’t mean that they don’t get ill! It might be that some people can work well from home when they might not have managed a commute but it can also be easy to be ill and ‘hide’ this. For example, if someone is finding their mental health is poor they may be reluctant to share this, leading to them carrying on working when they really should be taking leave. A determined employee could simply send a few emails or join an online meeting but not contribute – this is digital presenteeism.

I have heard from HR professionals that their sickness absence levels have reduced dramatically. This may also be linked to people’s concerns about job security.

When people have restrictions and are at home more we may also see increased leavism – people working when they are on holiday or other forms of leave. As my book sets out, the link between flexible working and wellbeing is complex. Wellbeing outcomes vary depending on the type of flexible working undertaken (homeworking being just one form of flexible working) and also by gender. For example, when women work flexibly they tend to do more domestic labour and childcare – so they don’t necessarily experience a wellbeing benefit.

This is just one more thing that organizations and managers need to consider in the new, more flexible future.

TR: I think flexible working will definitely impact and reduce the mindset of “presenteeism”. I believe that this change in mindset will evolve quickly over the coming months. I do see people still in the mindset of presenteeism, by using technology to show that they are “on” or “in the home office” during the pandemic. However, over time, I think managers will relax about this, and people will not feel the pressure to be seen as at work, so much.

Q: What advice would you give for getting the right balance for employees between productivity and wellbeing?

GD: When working from home it is all too easy to work longer hours and not take breaks. It is also easy to work when on leave. For some people this has been compounded during the pandemic as they have been working around childcare and other challenges, leading to them catching up with work outside of more normal working hours. This is both a management issue and an individual issue.

Managers should be aware of this potential and have conversations with employees about expectations – as well as tackle signs of overwork if they see them. Employees may need some help and support with setting boundaries and maintaining wellbeing and work-life balance.

Senior leaders have a part to play here; they can send clear messages (and role model them too) that taking care of wellbeing is not a nice to have, but actively encouraged. When implemented well, flexible working can put employees in control of their own work schedules and wellbeing – but this won’t happen without deliberate effort.

TR: In my research, I found that effective wellbeing programmes drive productivity, so there is no need to balance one off the other. The most effective wellbeing programmes are those that support the physical, mental and financial wellbeing of the workforce, and are ubiquitous – always there, always on.

Q: Do you think blended working is the ‘ultimate’ workplace set-up?

TR: Very much so. People should be trusted and given the autonomy to work with their colleagues to decide how and where the work gets done. In my research, I found it creates more engagement and improves productivity and innovation.

GD: Definitely yes, from an employee perspective. Many employees report that their productivity and focus is improved when working from home, often because they are not distracted by the office environment. Many also report enhanced wellbeing from reduced commuting. A blended approach provides these personal benefits.

Working from home every day can reduce collaboration and connectedness, but deliberate coming together with focus, can ensure that this doesn’t happen. It really can be the best of both worlds.

We can’t assume, however, that it will be easy. It requires another shift and can be more difficult to get right. It certainly requires managers to manage in a new way. Some will find this transition easier than others. Organizations must provide managers training and guidance in this specific area.

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