Skills HR will need in 2021: Making flexible working work

It’s unlikely we’ll go back to five days a week in the office after Covid. But this brings a whole new raft of challenges for people professionals

You must stay at home.” That was the order from prime minister Boris Johnson when he announced in March that the country was to start a period of lockdown measures in an attempt to control the rapid spread of Covid-19. It was these five words that instigated companies across the UK scrambling to issue laptops, purchase Zoom licences and create entire flexible working policies in a matter of days, as well as employees clearing their kitchen tables or setting up desks in their spare rooms in a bid to find somewhere suitable to do their jobs from home.

But while this new way of working has been foisted upon many people against their will, there have been upsides. For some, enforced remote working has caused them to reassess their long commute and, for others, the need to juggle a full-time job with homeschooling has led to a new appreciation of flexible hours. It’s no surprise, then, that according to the Forever Flex: Making flexible working work beyond a crisis report by Flex Appeal and construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine, more than seven in 10 (72 per cent) employees want to continue working from home after the pandemic; a similar proportion (70 per cent) want to carry on working flexitime; and 64 per cent want to keep part-time hours.

But implementing so-called ‘vlexible’ (virtual and flexible) working measures during a global pandemic is a very different ball game to doing so in ‘normal’ times. So how can HR make sure any remote working, flexitime, job share or compressed hours policies they put in place are fit for the business’s future long after Covid has abated? People Management explores four key areas that need to be considered…

Keep wellbeing front of mind

It’s fair to say that the pandemic has affected everyone’s mental health to some degree. The Office for National Statistics found in April and early May that of all respondents who reported high anxiety levels, more than one in five said they had been asked to work from home, and a similar number said they were experiencing difficulties working from home. In a survey by Nuffield Health in June, four in five (80 per cent) Brits said working from home had had a negative impact on their mental health.

But if, as the Flex Appeal research found, employers plan to continue offering flexible working – particularly doing so from home – in the long term, they will have to ensure employees’ psychological health is not adversely affected. Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, points out the critical role of line managers in supporting mental health, both in terms of signposting staff to sources of help, but also spotting signs of ill-health in the first place: “Line managers were always the main link between the individual and the organisation but, if everyone is working from home more, sometimes they’re the only link. Make sure they understand how their responsibility to support teams’ wellbeing has changed – managers are not medical experts, but they should be able to spot warning signs of poor mental health, have supportive conversations and signpost to sources of help.”

And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for staff to distinguish between home and work. The Nuffield Health research revealed that almost a third (30 per cent) of people working from home because of Covid found it difficult to separate their work and home lives. This in turn can lead to so-called ‘e-presenteeism’, where employees feel the need to be constantly online and working. Stephen Moir, executive director of resources at The City of Edinburgh Council, explains how his organisation moved swiftly to remote working when the virus hit, but that the longer-term danger is problems with presenteeism and burnout. “It’s so important that people take holidays – even if they’re just sat at home for a few days, not working or being on calls is good for mental health,” he says. “And leaders have a responsibility to take time off and set an example to their teams that it’s allowed.”

But of course, employee wellbeing isn’t just psychological. “You can’t underestimate the impact on people’s physical health,” says Suff, pointing out that sitting at a dining room table or in a bedroom could lead to chronic neck and back problems if people aren’t supported with the right equipment. Hannah Netherton, employment partner at law firm CMS, reports a change in employers’ attitudes to providing home working equipment as they start to look at the long-term future of flexible working. “I’m seeing a trend of businesses starting to agree to fund things like proper screens, chairs, even desks,” she explains. “Employers may be obliged to carry out a risk assessment for the workplace, even if that’s at home, and pregnant and disabled employees have additional health and safety concerns.”

Manage performance by output, not hours

For many, becoming a line manager is part and parcel of climbing the career ladder. But if you’re not a natural leader – or you haven’t been sufficiently upskilled to become one – it can be difficult to get the most out of your direct reports when you sit next to them every day, let alone in a new, more flexible working world. “There’s a big issue around middle managers’ ability to performance manage remote workers,” says Angela O’Connor, CEO of The HR Lounge and former public sector HR director. “Some of their skills will have been confined to saying ‘I see you at your desk’ and thinking that’s performance management.” The solution, she explains, is to focus on output rather than input, and look at the finished product you want from staff, and how to measure that. “This is a fantastic opportunity for HR to work with managers to develop skills around having commissioning conversations, and then quality checking them.”

Gauging performance by results could create opportunities for more diverse people to move up to management levels and beyond, says Claire Campbell, programme director at flexible working consultancy Timewise: “If we properly manage staff by outcome, and they work their day more flexibly from home, then we could see different people rising to the top and being successful.”

Increased remote working during lockdown has also instigated a trend of employers installing surveillance software to track their employees at home and make sure they’re doing their jobs when they’re supposed to be. Research by review website Top10VPN found demand for such software jumped 87 per cent in April this year, compared to monthly pre-pandemic averages. But this approach, says Suff, is not a trusting way to operate. “An organisation that feels the need to put in heavy-duty, Big Brother-style surveillance isn’t one that’s based on a trusting employment relationship,” she says, pointing out that performance management is supposed to be a “positive” process to support and develop people. “An ongoing, two-way process will be most effective, not just a yearly catch up,” she advises. 

Be prepared to tear up your reward strategy

With millions of UK workers not commuting to their place of work and saving money and time in the process, it’s no surprise that employees and employers alike are thinking about reassessing both their financial and geographical situations. But as the world of work in 2021 and beyond becomes a lot more flexible, and employees’ location in relation to their employers’ matters less, how can organisations reflect this new set up in their pay and reward endeavours?

Although abandoning location-based pay is already underway in places like Silicon Valley, it’s something the UK is only just beginning to consider, says Netherton. She explains that, because regional pay levels are driven by market forces like cost of living and available talent, businesses’ ability to be more flexible when it comes to where their employees are based means they will have access to a much wider talent pool, which could see private sector salaries increase.

However, she warns that any changes to pay structures will involve a contractual change, which – if it is reducing – will likely be impossible to agree. “Employers mustn’t forget about equal pay and sex discrimination, either,” she says. “Women are potentially more likely to work away from urban hubs to undertake more childcare duties so, if companies pay them less for living further away, there’s potentially discrimination.”

Better flexibility around pay is something Karen Shepperson, director of people and operations at Ofsted, is already considering. Although the organisation has paid an allowance to its home-based inspectors since long before Covid, Shepperson is looking at alternatives given “people’s expectations of work are changing”. “There’s an opportunity to build in greater flexibility and put a financial benefit to that,” she says. “If you’re not paying to travel, should you get an allowance towards your heating bills? We’re considering introducing a new wider benefits package in the future for all of our employees.”

Foster collaboration, even from afar

With teams potentially working flexible hours in future, and doing so from outside the office at least some of the time rather than sitting next to each other at their desks, keeping up teamwork and culture could well prove more difficult. “A big challenge for HR is maintaining collaboration and innovation,” says O’Connor. “But it’s no good telling people to collaborate and be innovative, and then just writing a policy about it – HR has to be at the forefront.” 

A lot of the responsibility for ensuring culture is maintained will be, again, down to line managers, explains Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, adding that they are “pivotal” in encouraging people to interact. She also highlights the importance of celebrating success: “It’s more important when people are working virtually that you recognise your team’s achievements, provide specific feedback, and encourage other team members to recognise and celebrate one another’s successes as well.” Managers should also, McCartney adds, continually seek feedback from their teams on how things are working and what could improve collaboration.

Although technology is critical to keeping teams connected and cultures alive, organisations need to agree which channels they use for different types of communication. Just as important as the formal ones are the more informal platforms, says Campbell, where teams can chat like they would in the office about last night’s TV, and so on. 

Both Moir and Shepperson have seen their organisations’ cultures move towards a more collaborative approach since the pandemic, and plan to make significant changes so employees can make the most of this. Shepperson would like staff to be able to make more of their time when they do go into the office, so is looking at reconfiguring Ofsted’s space to allow for more breakout areas and fewer individual desks: “We definitely think we’ll have a hybrid model, so we’ve got a lot more flexible meeting space for people to come together, and that we might be a lot more organised about when teams are going in.” 

Similarly, for Moir, despite having few remote working provisions in place before Covid, The City of Edinburgh Council has already seen a huge culture shift from one that he says was “very traditional and siloed” to one that’s much more collaborative, and plans to capitalise on that for some significant future developments. “We’ve adapted very quickly, and we’re seeing the benefits of that,” he explains. “We’ve now got a huge opportunity to redesign the organisation and rethink the way we work.”

Read the rest of our 'Skills HR will need in 2021' series: