Flexible working is not just about using the right online tools. Some companies will need to adjust their culture and working practices to find the right balance.
Pre-Covid, many organisations simply saw flexible working as allowing employees to work from home one day a week. This is because all their processes, tools and management practices were established for office working and it explains why some of them struggled with the move to remote working at the start of lockdown.
Now every organisation and sector has experienced remote working as standard practice – even those sectors where remote working was previously deemed “not possible”. For instance, call centre staff who can now take support calls from home due to improved technology. This has the additional benefit of opening-up a completely new and underutilised section of the workforce who couldn’t physically work from a call centre due to family or personal circumstances. Or the retail store that has been just as busy fulfilling online orders but who previously did not have an effective eCommerce channel. This also has the additional benefit of potentially saving their business in the longer term.
And whilst the enforced Covid digital transformation has been great for breaking down barriers to change, it did not go far enough. Simply replicating office practices at home doesn’t work and many employees have experienced increased mental stress from hours of online meetings without a break or any real human interaction.
For a true flexible working culture there needs to be a complete shift in thinking and that requires trust and empowerment. Employees should be able to work where they want, when they want, and how they want as long as they interact effectively with colleagues, customers and partners and deliver on their expected deadlines. Of course, if they cannot effectively deliver on their outputs without being in a physical place then obviously the nature of flexibility is more restrictive.
Some organisations will struggle with this unless they revisit their culture which, arguably, has already changed lockdown, so why go backwards?
Employers need to balance the continued focus on business and financial results with the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of their employees. Flexible working is here to stay – a recent Economic & Social Council funded report found that 73% of employees wish to work from home, in some form, once lockdown measures have ended. In fact, flexible working is a statutory right under employment law and it might now be more difficult to decline an employee’s request if the request has already been proven to have worked during lockdown.
The more progressive organisations will see this as an opportunity to not only listen to their employees but an opportunity to engage with a more diverse talent base in more locations. There will be business benefits to be gained and this could be a competitive advantage for those organisations that get it right.
The following are a few ideas for organisations to consider if they want to offer true flexibility when offices reopen:
- Employee outputs must be measurable. If the output cannot be measured then the employee will struggle to prove their success to the organisation through whatever working model is used. It proves that results still come first and is critical to get over any outdated thinking that may still linger in an organisation.
- Actively listen to your employees. Use every method that’s available across multiple channels to work out what the best working environment would look like and consider geography, job roles, demographics, and family / domestic circumstances. Different groups will have different needs and priorities. Flexible working could cater for all groups to provide a diverse talent pool for the organisation.
- Don’t take the easy option. Explore every potential area for flexibility across every aspect of the working environment. For example, if a role requires physical presence – is there another part of the role that does lend itself to a more flexible approach. Even the most hands-on jobs have “paperwork” that could be completed remotely.
- Challenge the objections to change and identify what currently blocks true flexibility. Is it technology or process? Or is it mindset? Challenge the organisation to think differently. What’s the return on investment based on a change? There will be one.
- Watch your competition and other sectors. Consider any recruitment or retention issues. How could a more flexible environment lead to improvements in these areas?
- Reconfigure the office for new working practices. For example, interaction spaces and a more informal collaborative working set-up might be better than rows of office desks (even for hot-desking). Could real estate savings be made?
- Reconsider internal communication. Where employees are dispersed, operating across wider working hours and a more diverse geographical location, there needs to be different forums for communication and delivered in a way that can be easily accessed. This will be time consuming and takes effort, but it is now part of our current lives.
- What business opportunities present themselves through a new flexible working practice? What’s the opportunity that could never have happened before the enforced Covid-transformation? Consider the call centre and retail examples above. There will undoubtedly be new opportunities to reduce costs or become more competitive in other areas. Potentially the most dangerous option is to just go back to a normal working practice in an office or work environment without exploring these opportunities.
 Working from Home under COVID-19 lockdown: Transitions and Tensions, January 2021