29th July, 2021
Will agile working continue after lockdown restrictions ease?
Did pre-lockdown office working arrangements work?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic working from home was rare. In 2019 only around 5% of the workforce worked from home with around 30% reporting home working had never been permitted. 
For businesses where home working is possible, this past year has seen a drastic increase in the number of people working flexibly from home, with a rise to 46.6% for people working from home in some capacity in April 2020. This follows on from the Employment Bill announcement in the Queen’s speech in December 2019, which stipulated that the starting point for employers would be to allow flexible working, it could be that this trend may be here to stay.
With government-enforced working from home during the lockdown, attitudes of many employers and employees have shifted. Businesses are recognising that long term home working and increased flexible working can have a positive impact on well-being and productivity.
It seems home working has in turn seen a fall in the number of employees taking advantage of other forms of flexible working such as shorter weeks and term-time working as they are able to work more flexibly from home. For example, the amount people working compressed hours has dropped from 0.74% to 0.64%, and the amount of term time workers has dropped from 4.68% to 4.22%. Additionally, the amount of sick leave being taken has dropped significantly – potentially because of people finding working from home less stressful than permanently being in their working environment.
What are businesses doing going forward?
Whilst some businesses will be keen to return to office work, many businesses are opting for a future of more agile working. Companies such as Amazon, American Express, and Deloitte have recently announced that, even once lockdown restrictions have been eased, they will continue to allow all their employees choose when and where they wish to work. This means that they will not be enforcing their employees to attend, should they not want/need to, but rather that employees really do have the right to choose.
Benefits of allowing flexible working from home
Experience during the Pandemic has shown that permission for employees to work from home has brought many benefits for employers and their business. For instance, by allowing people to not constantly be in the office environment, employers have found that they have reassessed what resources their business needs. For example, many businesses have reduced their office space or cut down significantly on travel costs and expenses.
Employers have also noted that employees seem more motivated in their work as well – by placing the trust in them that they will be able to work to expectations from home, and away from the work environment, their employees have found flexible working to be very beneficial to their mental health, and thus productivity.
Additionally, families have seen great benefit from flexible working, particularly during the early stages of the Pandemic when schools were closed. The ability to alter their hours, and work from home meant that families did not have to worry about childcare, home-schooling or any related activities. This is a benefit which many parents are keen to retain past the end of the Pandemic.
Employers have also found themselves popular with their employees for allowing employees who are parents to work flexibly from home, particularly during the stage of the Pandemic when schools were closed. Taking away the necessity for third party childcare has meant that employees have enjoyed a much easier work-life balance during the Pandemic, which hasn’t gone unnoticed, and reflects well on those employers who allowed this.
Downsides of employees working from home
Although there are many positives brought by the permission for employees to work from home, there are important downsides to consider, particularly if these may affect your business disproportionately.
For instance, team managers may find that they are unable to cope with the overloading work of managing different types of employees. They may find it particularly hard to keep track of individuals’ progress if some are working primarily from home whereas others are based at the workplace.
Additionally, it may be the case that there is a breakdown in team relationships – it is important that routes of communication between employees are kept open and accessible to ensure that teamwork within the company remains unaffected.
Many employees also struggle to work in isolation and prefer to work in an office environment where they can engage with and see their colleagues and in the case of more junior employees they can benefit from shadowing more senior employees in the workplace which is harder to do remotely.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be consideration of those most affected by either having to work from home, or indeed being unable to work from home. Women, for example, are traditionally considered the primary caregiver to their children, and as such, may be required to be at home more often than in the workplace. There are concerns that this would decrease their visibility for opportunities such as promotion by their seniors – if they are not seen to be in the office, they are often ignored. They may see others being afforded the opportunity of working from home and/or more flexibly and feel demotivated that they are unable to do so.
Recommendations to employers
Businesses should be open to a more longer-term flexible working arrangement if this still allows them to meet the needs of their business.
Employers should consider the following to allow for successful agile working and for those returning to work after a long period of working from home:
- Ensure your return-to-work policy is clear. With some having only temporarily been allowed to work from home, ensuring that the policy for returning to work is clear, and allowing the transition back into the workplace is as smooth and as safe as possible is integral.
- Judgement of work should be based on the outcome, not physical presence. Many will continue to work from home, and a concern may be that their work is ignored, as they are not directly in the eyesight of management. Ensuring they are clearly assessed and rewarded on the work produced, and not their attendance in the office is important in combating this.
- Communication with employees is integral. Whether this is to ensure the team bond remains strong and intact, or whether this is to reassure employees that their career progression is still being properly considered, clear communication is of the utmost importance.
- Support for managers and employees. How are you as an organisation supporting managers and employees? What training has been offered for remote working and equipment and resources to ensure safe home working?
- Support of workers’ health, safety and mental wellbeing. How is this being managed? Are managers and staff being trained and policies updated?
- Consider reducing the amount of time worked before a flexible working request can be made. Usually, an employee needs to have worked for 26 weeks’ continuously before they can make a request for flexible working. By allowing requests from “day 1”, you are allowing working from home to become standard practice if an employee so wishes.
- Clarity and consistency in policy is crucial. Such widespread working from home is still relatively new – ensuring employees, managers and employers understand the rules and expectations which come with this is integral to the system working properly and effectively.
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