OPINION: As COVID restrictions ease, flexible working must stay on the agenda

Monday, 5 July 2021 14:57 GMT

Nesma Nasr, an Egyptian textile engineer, works on her computer at her home in Cairo, Egypt March 26, 2021. Picture taken March 26, 2021. REUTERS/Hanaa Habib

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The biggest legacy of the pandemic in the world of work will be in putting people more at the centre of business thinking

Peter Cheese is chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic last year transformed many of the norms of working life. Millions of workers traded offices for their own homes, while others remained on the front line in challenging circumstances never seen before, often in lower paid jobs.

Organisations and individuals had to rapidly adapt, learned different ways of working and connecting, and very largely remained productive.

But experiences of people and the lessons learned have been varied. Millions of jobs were threatened as economies shrank and governments everywhere had to put in place extensive support schemes.

People’s wellbeing has been impacted either directly from the virus or through social isolation, other life changes and uncertainty, and the pandemic is likely to cast a long shadow for months or years to come.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of the pandemic in the world of work will be in putting people more at the centre of business thinking.

Most organisations stepped up their support to all their people, communicating more, focusing on individual wellbeing and supporting needs wherever they were working, and trusting them to work in these different ways.

Because of this, almost paradoxically, engagement scores went up and work cultures took a shift to more compassion and human level connection. Understanding of what is really possible with different ways, places and hours of working has changed, and the expectations of our workforces are greatly heightened that they will have more choice and opportunity to work in different ways in the future.

Flexible working comes in many forms – not just places of work, but hours and schedules of work. It can be good for people’s wellbeing and work-life balance, effective use of time enabling productivity gains, and to support inclusion for those with constraints on where and when they can work.

Access to flexible working is already showing up as a strong factor that will attract and retain staff. As we see a tightening labour market and recruitment challenges in sectors and key skill areas, flexible working provision should be seen as a strategic differentiator.

Prior to the pandemic, flexible working was not seen as a norm, but more as an exception. Less than 10% of jobs on average were advertised as supporting flexible working, yet patterns of work and the ‘standard’ working week have not changed for generations.

Cultures of work have long been dominated by presenteeism, judging performance or commitment as much on input and being visible as output produced.

This has impacted women in particular as almost 40% of women in the UK were working part-time versus only 13% of men. Even through the pandemic, there is evidence that higher proportions of people working part-time have either lost their jobs or been furloughed than those working full-time and use of flexible hours working has dropped.

The pandemic can and should act as a big catalyst for change. But as we develop more hybrid and flexible ways of working, there is much to think about.

We have to be sure of fairness in opportunity to access more flexible working, particularly between those who may be able to work from home and those who have to be in a workplace. There is no one size fits all, and every organisation will need to consult and work with its workforce, balancing individual choice with team and organisational needs.

Workplaces will need to become more adaptable as well. Reappraising how and why we use office space should encourage greater adaptation and variation in office and work environments. And ongoing investment in workplace and collaborative technologies will be needed to help everyone work smarter, not just harder.

Fundamental to sustaining these shifts will be better training of managers at all levels. Good people management skills including the ability to work with diverse teams working in diverse ways are vital, as well as how to focus on outputs, support wellbeing, and trust and empower people effectively. 

Historically this has been lacking in manager training and development and in how their performance is typically evaluated, which needs to change.

Out of crisis also comes opportunity. We all need to modernise working practices and improve wellbeing outcomes for all.