Making flexibility work in the ‘new normal’

We’re three months into the world’s first working from home experiment, says Alice ter Haar. So how can employers harness what they’ve learned during Covid-19?

Do you miss the commute? There are many things I’ve pined for during lockdown, but the daily rush hour Tube journey is not one of them. From steamy trains and sweaty armpits to traffic jams and rushing out the front door, there are many ‘delights’ associated with working in an office I’m sure many are happier without.

The majority of us have become used to working with some degree of flexibility; according to the 2017 Labour Force Survey almost two in three UK employees work flexibly, if you include working from home and shift working. Thanks to advances in technology, shifting attitudes and changing consumer patterns, the concept of the traditional nine-to-five role will soon become a relic of the past, just like the idea of a ‘job for life’ did at the turn of the millennium. 

Meanwhile, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to further mix things up. Covid-19 has spurred all companies – even the dinosaurs – into facilitating their workforces to work remotely and more flexibly. And so the big question on everyone’s lips right now is: what next? After lockdown is lifted, will things go back to the way they were, or will they be forever transformed?

With Facebook and Google confirming teams aren’t expected to return to offices before 2021, it’s clear business is thinking differently. And they’re wise to. Flexible working is consistently cited as one of the most significant factors in employee happiness, as well as having tangible benefits for the employer. Plus, in the case of our current circumstances, there’s the added consideration of avoiding public health risk. But once the pandemic measures lift, now that employees have had a proper trial of these remote and flexible ways of working (and once the kids are back to school), will we be prepared to go back to the same daily grind?

Certainly, there’s still a long way to go before we move beyond working from home and flexitime as the definition of flexibility: currently, only 25 per cent of the workforce work part time and this figure has barely budged in two decades, despite flexible working being a statutory right since 2003. Less than 16 per cent of global companies are fully remote.

As someone who’s been working four days a week as an employee and one day a week running their own small business, I’ve experienced first hand the benefits of an alternative working set-up. According to a 2018 YouGov survey, half of respondents would do away with the nine-to-five working day given the chance. Well, that chance has come thanks to Covid-19. So how can employers make this ‘new normal’ work?

You get what you give

For flexibility to work, it has to flex both ways. A reasonable company is generally happy to accommodate a reasonable employee, as long as they’re given the same respect in return. That means, while we can leave early to do a virtual Zumba class, we’re also willing to work late occasionally to hit an important deadline. Employees shouldn’t expect flexibility to be a one-way street and vice versa.

It pivots on mutual trust and respect

Half a decade on from McGregor’s X-Y theory, too many leaders distrust the motivation and productivity of their teams, especially when it comes to working flexibly or remotely. This is a sad, often generational-based reality that will take time to die out. It is the job of flexible working beneficiaries and advocates to prove the naysayers wrong by upholding integrity in the way we work, and role modelling the behaviours they should expect. Yes, I’ll take a personal call in the middle of the day, but I will always complete my contracted weekly hours. Personal accountability is crucial – one way I manage this is keeping note of a hypothetical timesheet to ensure I’m meeting my contracted obligations.

It's about output, not input

The CIPD reported last year that 83 per cent of respondents had witnessed ‘presenteeism’ in their organisation. When I moved to four days a week, my boss empowered me to live my working week autonomously, as long as I met the objectives we both agreed to. Thanks to this respect from my boss, I was even more motivated to work hard. If it’s all output-focused, then it’s an employee’s responsibility to optimise for that. 

Aim for work-life blend

Whether we like it or not, we’re almost three months into the world’s first working from home experiment. Our personal and professional lives have come together as never before. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how life and work will change, but one thing that won’t change is the need for people’s personal lives and work to interconnect. Life – global pandemic or not – is stressful. And the more harmoniously and authentically we can bring those things together, the easier it becomes, and the better it gets.  

Alice ter Haar is the founder of Badass Unicorn, a personal development consultancy. She presented at this year's virtual CIPD Festival of Work. Subscribe to receive the latest festival updates and offers directly to your inbox by visiting