Remote and flexible working will be the new normal

Majority of employees want to continue working flexibly post Covid and businesses must adapt in order to stay viable, says Niall Eyre

The workplace revolution has arrived. The number of employees engaged within remote or flexible working has grown exponentially during the covid crisis. Studies indicate that in most European countries, between 70-80 per cent of employees are interested in pursuing some element of remote and flexible working, post-covid. The seismic shift to work design will be consolidated into the future. 

This revolution has provided many challenges to conventional assumptions of work design and organisational norms. Future work design models will be based on a combination of work structures, which will require high-level organisational agility, flexibility, and adaptability skills. 

Incorporating multiple work design models into existing organisational structures will challenge business leaders and the key work design issues will be inclusiveness, fairness, customer responsiveness and avoidance of sub-cultures within the organisation.  

The movement to provide increased protection and rights to remote or flexible working employees is gathering pace, internationally. Recent developments in Germany are interesting. 

Traditionally conservative to remote and flexible work, regulations in Germany are being drafted to provide employees with the legal right for remote work. This means citizens will have the legal right to request to work from home and organisations must adapt. 

The ‘right to disconnect’ topic has been in focus for some years, in line with the growth of digitalisation of work processes and communications. In many countries the discussion has shifted from general feedback from employees to a formal, organised and trade union supported policy, that is driven by employee representatives. 

This moves the discussion to a more legalised and potentially confrontational format which can become complicated and divisive. France has specific legislation in place regarding the right to disconnect, and this has had an impact to employer communications. In Ireland, political parties are proposing new legislation to boost protection for employees who are doing some or all work from home, including the right to disconnect from out-of-hours communication. 

This proposal has gained considerable cross community support as many families have been impacted by the reality of one or two parental figures working from home. For the debate to reach the political environment is significant and demonstrates the level of support for the right to disconnect.  

This right to disconnect has implications for all businesses, specifically internationally structured organisations that work across multiple time zones and international locations. In this context, some organisations are adopting new and progressive policies in this area. 

The catalyst for change is partly due to increased focus on wellbeing and mental health issues within the workplace, that is aligned to the right to disconnect agenda. Covid-19 has significantly heightened the need for employers to advocate a sensible and sustainable work-life balance approach.

The challenge for businesses is to reach the point where there is balance between the needs and requirements of employees, while considering the impact on business performance. If all employee requests are agreed to, this will challenge the viability of some businesses. Difficult business decisions will need to be made and to be explained with clarity and compassion. Not all organisations will succeed in achieving these goals and business leaders will need specific support with organisational communications.   

Businesses will also face the challenge of changing aspects of work culture and adapting to new legal and social norms. This will require targeted business leader education and support. Changing leader behaviors can take time and requires role modelling by executive leadership.  

As businesses transition out of the covid bubble to the new normal, there will be pressure on cash flow, customer service, business marketing and sales, which will require employee groups to work in a specific manner. If, during this time, there is an overhaul of the organisational work design model, with large cohorts of employees transitioning to a new work model, the impact on efficiency and performance could be significant. 

To move forward in a progressive and positive manner organisations should not wait until this becomes overly regulated with multiple employment law directives. Effective organisational work design models require high levels of engagement, enablement, and empowerment. 

Best practice in this area is to commence engagement with employees (as soon as possible) and design the communications and interaction based on a partnership approach. This will enable practical and tailored solutions that support the evolvement of organizational culture to incorporate new ways of working and new work design models. 

The business case for remote and flexible working is proven. Business leaders are on a journey of acceptance to the new reality and the HR profession is supporting organisations transition to a new working world. The future of work is here so we should, collectively, lead from the front and design the workforce and workplace that we now need. And we should start this today.

Niall Eyre is owner and principal consultant at TransForm HR