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Has Covid been detrimental to true flexible working?

25 Feb 2021 By Jo Faragher

Lockdown has meant adoption of properly flexible practices has stalled. So how can HR get it back on the right track?

It’s been described as the ‘great home working experiment’, a lightbulb moment where managers suddenly realised that jobs can be done flexibly, a turning point for equality at work. But has this really been the case? “If it’s been an experiment, it’s been an inefficient one with no planning and no end date,” says Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Flexible Working: How to Implement Flexibility in the Workplace to Improve Employee and Business Performance. 

“We need to stop using this term now. Normally we’d implement home or flexible working in a strategic and organised way rather than sending everyone home and sorting it out after. All we’ve done is lift and shift what we do in the office to the home, rather than look at the way we actually work.”

While it might not have been the most scientific of trials, some still hail the pandemic as a game changer for flexible working adoption. CIPD research shows that the reality for many is quite different, however. Just under a fifth of respondents in a recent survey said their organisation did not offer any flexible working arrangements, while fewer than a third of employers planned to introduce more forms of flexible working (beyond home working) in the next six to 12 months. And while stories abound about toddlers crashing Zoom calls and managers holding meetings from their bedrooms, more than two in five (44 per cent) employees have not worked at home at all during the crisis, according to the CIPD. Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion, says there is a danger of creating divisions and feelings of unfairness if organisations fail to recognise that flexible working does not necessarily equal working from home. “We need to open up managers’ minds to the different types of flexibility they can offer, whether that’s a job share or giving staff more control over shifts. Employees who feel more in control tend to have a better work/life balance,” she says. 

In February, the CIPD launched its #FlexFrom1st campaign to make the right to request flexible working available from the first day of employment, rather than the current threshold of 26 weeks.

In some ways, the sudden switch from the office has set the cause of flexible working back, says Claire Campbell, programme director at flexible working consultancy Timewise. Concerns about meeting deadlines and job security have led many working parents to put in a full shift of homeschooling before starting an eight-hour work day in the afternoon, while there have been reports of extreme monitoring by managers who have demanded employees are ‘live’ on Zoom during normal working hours. “Anything about enforced home working isn’t the way we’d see true flexible working,” says Campbell. “What it has done, however, is break down the idea that only some jobs can be done from home. We’ve shown we can work productively and we’ve developed workarounds for some of the barriers that came up before.” 

Paul Hamer, CEO of construction company Sir Robert McAlpine (SRM), admits there was an element of “making this up as we go along” when the lockdown restrictions hit last March. “We found ourselves in this situation we were unprepared for; we reacted and acted quickly,” he says. “But normally in business there’s a precedent you can refer to – a previous recession.” 

Hamer is keen that his firm does not spring back to how it was before, and flexible working is now being built into how it does business – even for roles that pre-Covid might have been argued as impossible to do flexibly. He adds: “There are elements of job design and work patterns that lend themselves to flexibility – I can work from home more easily than a construction manager who physically needs to be on site, for example. But we’re asking our people to design our flexible working culture – to tell us how working patterns can be changed.” There are two elements to this: an internal flexible working survey to identify the opportunities and challenges, followed by pilots of working models. Hamer has no expectations that flexibility at SRM will look the same as it does at other firms. “It’s not a failure if we implement flexibility in a different way,” he says. “We’ll do the pilots, understand the implications, consider what it means for our strategy and recruitment. In some cases jobs could change significantly.” 

Like SRM, many businesses are turning to employee surveys to gauge how their staff want to work in a post-Covid world. These tend to focus on how employees wish to split their week, whether they’d feel more comfortable with more days in the office than at home, or vice versa. Increasingly, employees are keen for a hybrid of home working, with time in the office for collaboration and cultural bonding, but this is where the challenge lies. “What most people want is blended, and that’s hard,” adds Dale. “We’ll need new ways to manage performance and to avoid presence bias, as managers who are in the office will automatically default to the people they see.” 

Lucy Adams, founder of HR consultancy Disruptive HR, warns against giving in to a complacency that cultures have changed because staff have more freedom to choose where they work. “On the surface there has been a disappearance of objections, but I’m not sure those old assumptions have gone away,” she says. “Some organisations are approaching the return but applying old thinking. ‘We’ll allow someone to work from home for a couple of days’ is not the same as stepping back, looking at when and where we work best, and building your strategy from there.” 

Nick Bacon, professor of human resource management at City University’s Cass Business School, argues that it’s too early to make rigid plans for new working plans or locations. “For a lot of client-facing roles, it will depend on what the customer wants – you might need to meet them and fit in with their time scales,” he says. “Also, we don’t know what the price of office space will be in a year’s time, yet many employers are closing down offices. It’s genuinely still very early.” 

Consulting firm PwC is one such client-facing business facing these dilemmas. It continues to open new offices, but they are built around collaboration rather than quiet workstations, explains Sarah Churchman, chief inclusion, community and wellbeing officer. The company is looking at how it advocates fair work, so projects go to people based on their skills and experience, regardless of their working patterns or location. It’s not just about how salaried employees work either – drawing on a network of contingent workers and consultants means the firm will be able to respond to clients’ needs in an agile way. “Flexibility is not a straight line,” she says. “We’re looking at resourcing engagements on fairness rather than convenience, so leaders aren’t choosing people because they’ve worked with them before.”

She acknowledges that managers are often the gatekeepers of (or barriers to) flexibility, and there is an ongoing shift in focus in the business towards deliverables rather than counting hours. In leadership training, managers are encouraged to think about times when they performed at their best: “This tends to be when they were trusted or allowed to stretch themselves, rather than someone looking over their shoulders all the time. We’re encouraging them to realise that people work well in different ways.” 

Bacon says this mindset shift needs to happen before organisations can embrace true flexibility. “Managers have to get used to having conversations with employees rather than dropping in on them – to rely on outputs without observing them,” he advises, highlighting the increased regularity of contact managers have had with their teams over the course of the pandemic. But with that, organisations will have to consider how new approaches to flexibility affect existing processes around performance management and reward. “We know home working can be more productive than being in the office, but it does affect your promotion opportunities,” he adds. “Virtual appraisals tend to be scored lower than face-to-face ones, so there could be a promotion penalty.” 

So what does this mean for existing policies around flexible working and how employees request it? McCartney advises employers to look at what they currently offer, but crucially also how they advertise it. “Think about how you communicate it even before that first day,” she says. “A survey can help you build a response without guaranteeing arrangements, but can also help you see how practices might differ. Don’t take for granted that everyone will want to work from home.” If someone asks to work in a certain way, she adds, piloting it can show up any aspects that need to be adapted without formalising it. 

One of the challenges is that policies and approaches have often been built around working time expectations that date back to the industrial revolution, Dale adds: “We’re moving beyond the 9 to 5 when we all had to go to the same place at the same time to ‘do work’; technology has allowed us to do that. People have been using this time to discover they’re a morning person, or they come alive at 10pm or they like working in short bursts. We will never embrace flexible working until we embrace asynchronous working.” 

Insurance giant Zurich rolled out a company-wide flexible working programme in 2015 but discovered that, for managers to really embrace it, it would require a slightly different approach. “We soon noticed that pick-up globally could be improved, which is why we launched ‘Flexwork 2.0’,” says Dr Katja Raithel, group head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing. In 2019 it started six-month trials in selected countries, collecting data locally to monitor progress and adapt if needed. Culturally, there needed to be a shift in mindset among managers to focus on outputs rather than inputs before it could be a success. Simply rolling out online collaboration tools is not enough, she adds: “One of the things that became visible during the pilot phase was that training our employees in technology and online tools is imperative, both to ensure they are used optimally and to create the right environment for collaboration and brainstorming.” 

Zurich is also very explicit about the opportunities to work flexibly at the company: it recently reported a 20 per cent jump in women applying for senior roles after it altered the wording in its vacancies.  

The businesses that offer true flexible working will be the ones willing to be creative and try things out, as Zurich has. Timewise has been working with public service organisations, for example, that are reconsidering their opening hours and how this might offer both staff and customers more options to access them and, in some parts of the NHS, managers are taking team-based approaches to rostering using technology to assign hours based on employees’ preferences. “Ultimately it comes down to leadership having a unified view of what things should look like and having conversations early on about working patterns so they can build this into how they resource teams and projects,” says Campbell. 

The pandemic has led many businesses to think they’ve cracked flexible working – but as the labour market begins to move again and employees vote with their feet, we’ll see whether they were right. 

How HMRC crafted a flexible workforce fit for the future

HMRC has undoubtedly been one of the busiest government departments since Covid struck. CEO Jim Harra has said that policies and rules for financial support schemes introduced by the chancellor were “largely devised on the kitchen tables and in the home offices of HMRC staff”. 

Around 80 per cent of its 64,000-strong workforce were working from home most or all of the time within a week of lockdown, according to Gillian Smith, deputy director of diversity and inclusion. HMRC had already done a lot of work on implementing technology to support this shift to home working, and offered a range of flexible working patterns. Although more women than men work at the department overall, it has made changes over the past five years to increase female applications, with graduate intake rising from 24 per cent women to 49 per cent. Flexible working helps to retain those women and ensure they can progress into more senior roles. 

“Job design is key, as is challenging hiring managers’ preconceptions about person specifications and role fit,” says Smith. The civil service has been a pioneer in job sharing, launching a job share tool in 2015 so employees can look for roles and find a potential job share partner. 

“Advertising the flexibility that we offer is important, not only for those looking for flexible patterns now, but for those who may wish to do so in the future. Many colleagues join us on a full-time basis because they know that, if and when their circumstances change, our policies will support them to make adjustments to their working patterns. We specifically target job adverts to people returning to the workplace after taking time out for childcare or other caring roles,” she adds.

Flexibility has helped all employees, not just women, deal with the challenges of the pandemic. “Many have shared with me how more flexibility has enabled them to strike a better balance, and how their line managers have been open and responsive to requests for flexibility,” says Smith. “Disabled staff and carers in particular have told me the increased flexibility has enabled them to manage better. They feel better supported and engaged, and as a result see opportunities they had not previously seen for using their talents and flourishing in their careers.”

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