Flexible working and the future of work

On March 11, 2020, the whole world came to a halt as the World Health Organisation declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Lockdowns were ordered by governments worldwide, only essential travel was permitted, and all non-essential workers were required to work from home wherever possible. 

According to the Office of National Statistics 2020, around half of all UK employees worked from home, at least some of the time since the first UK-wide lockdown. This percentage is put into perspective when you take a look at the  European Working Conditions Survey of 2015, which reported that just one in six employees in the UK worked from home. 

While it was long heralded that the future of work would become much more flexible in years before the Coronavirus outbreak — largely due to technology innovation and the rise of the gig economy — there’s no doubt that the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have accelerated this prediction at an unprecedented speed.

Now sectors in the UK are almost “business as usual” and the future is looking a lot more hopeful, is the “new normal” a thing of the past? Or has the working patterns throughout the pandemic changed the future of work as we know it? 

Exploration of home working during lockdown

A collaborative study conducted by the University of Birmingham and the University of Kent took a closer look at the changes in working practices during the pandemic. Wanting to gain an understanding of the organisational perspective on managing home working since the COVID-19 lockdown, a national survey was conducted with UK managers.  

The survey explores how perceptions and attitudes towards working from home and flexible working may have changed since the lockdown. The report is designed to provide insights for organisations and policymakers about likely changes in the future of working. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the key findings from the report.

Managers are much more positive about working from home and flexible working since lockdown

The pandemic has truly changed attitudes around flexible working. In the survey, fewer managers reported believing that being present in the office and long working hours are essential to career progression within organisations. Prior to lockdown, around 57 percent of managers believed employees needed to be physically present in the workplace to progress. Since lockdown, this has decreased to 37.5 percent.

The survey on manager’s attitudes also uncovered that there has been an increase in those managers who believe that working from home increases productivity, since their experiences in lockdown.  58.6 percent of managers surveyed said that working from home increases productivity, whereas only 44.1 percent agreed with this statement before lockdown.

Adding to the increased positive attitudes, managers also reported feeling more trusting of their teams since lockdown, feel much more aware of work-life balance issues, and believe working from home will become a more permanent feature in the future among organisations.

Increase in support provided for homeworking post-lockdown

The lockdown has also impacted the way organisations provide support to their employees who work from home, particularly via the tools they provide. Over 80 percent of managers said that their organisations have supplied computers and over 70 percent have supplied online meeting software to staff, for example.

An increase in professional support offered to employees has also been reported, including line manager support, software guidance, and support for wellbeing — though this was more prevalent in those organisations with over 250 employees.

Managers intend to encourage more flexible working and homeworking in the future

For those of us that have become rather accustomed to the WFH way of living, the next finding will be very much welcomed news. The managers surveyed indicated that working from home would be encouraged and better supported in the future with more jobs advertised as available working (50 percent), and greater support will be given towards employee requests for flexible working, working from home arrangements, and part-time work.

In addition to this, managers believe that more support will be given to ensure senior roles can be done flexibly in the future. For example, almost 50 percent of managers surveyed believed that senior managers will be given the opportunity to work from home.

Wellbeing and mental health

The wellbeing and mental health of employees when remote working has been a particular concern for managers since lockdown. The survey reported the finding that managers were more likely to say working from home leads to isolation since lockdown (46.5 percent before lockdown rising to 58.7 percent since lockdown).

Despite concerns around mental health, only 36.3 percent of managers reported that their organisations have provided wellbeing counsellors for employees, and 55.7 percent reported that their organisations provided guidance for wellbeing since lockdown.

Overall, managers felt that managers needed more support and guidance from their companies on how to manage mental health and wellbeing.

A more flexible future?

Despite prior predictions of a more remote working future, flexible work has traditionally struggled for mass adoption in the workplace. However, Covid-19 and the subsequent national lockdowns have propelled organisations everywhere to embrace this way of working with open arms.

Employers have since faced a steep learning curve regarding how to manage a remote workforce, with very little guidance on the matter due to the sudden implementation of the lockdown.

Despite this, the report clearly suggests that managers have had generally pretty positive experiences of working from home. Organisations from across various industries have improved their systems and have shown increased support for flexible working throughout lockdown. While it’s clear that more support is needed in areas such as mental health and well-being, as a result of the positive experiences felt by those managers surveyed, many are keen to embrace more working from home and flexible working patterns in the future.

For help and support on negotiating a flexible working request with your employer, check out the advice given by Citizen Advice or feel free to reach out to us at HdE TALENT today.