When you say ‘flexible working’…

There has been an interesting, understandable and yet worrying trend in discussions people are having around working practices in the past few weeks. The media has been using the words ‘remote’ and ‘flexible’ widely – and interchangeably – when discussing the current enforced home working. But being forced to work from your bedroom and not being allowed back to your normal working environment can in no way be described as ‘flexible’.

One message being shared on social media (with a host of people claiming it originated in their firm…) goes something like this:

  • You are not ‘working from home’, you are ‘at your home, during a crisis, trying to work’. 
  • Your personal physical, mental, and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now.
  • You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  • You will be kind to yourself and not judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  • You will be kind to others and not judge how they are coping based on how you are coping. 
  • Your team's success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal. 

This is the reality for many people. This is a crisis. The crisis is not the ‘new normal’. It is a phase we are passing through and we shouldn’t be rushing to conclusions about future work practices when we have a chance to shape and evolve them intelligently, learning not just from the now, but from the lessons of the past that we didn’t quite heed.

Anyone previously wishing that their organisation would let them work from home more often really would not have had the current events in mind. And, not everyone will now want to work remotely when life returns to ‘normal’. Our recent research into the impact of COVID-19 on working lives finds that while four in ten workers will request more frequent remote working after the pandemic, virtually the same amount said the pandemic hasn’t changed the likelihood that they’ll request this.  People have rapidly been given a different set of ‘inflexible’ working practices – and as a result the headlines calling out the ‘death of the office’ have spread across the media like an unstoppable force.

Due to our very human interest in the extremes, the stories that we see are dominated by i) the people who never want to go back to the office and ii) the people who can’t wait to go back to the office. But the reality is that there is a continuum between those two positions, and the breadth of working style, individual circumstances and task requirements is the reason that we need to focus on flexibility of working environments rather than a binary choice between locations.

‘Flexible working’ in terms of location means having a choice of environment that will support different types of work at different times. This can be about the range of environments available and their flexibility for different tasks/moods/times. A workplace can have different areas uniquely suited to different types of working and that ongoing flexibility should be a consideration for any organisation reviewing their workplace design due to COVID-19. 

But in its fullest sense,  ‘flexible working’  is about a bundle of working practices that are not just about location, but are about giving more freedom and autonomy to individuals in how they can get their work done – through choice of hours, choice of work style, job sharing or career breaks, to name but a few of the dimensions.  Our Good Work Index shows that, pre-pandemic, working from home and flexi time were the most common types of flexible working, with other forms of flexibility far less widely available.

It is this more rounded flexibility that organisations should be aspiring to, not just a continuation of some of the current enforced shifts. Flexible working creates more inclusive working environments by giving flexibility for people with differing commitments and lifestyles to be more productive. Just requiring people to continue working from home certainly isn’t flexible – and while allowing more home working might be progress, it still falls short of seizing the opportunity that is there to really rethink how work and workplaces are designed to help support productivity and wellbeing.

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  • Thanks for this. I hated the idea of working from home and after 3 months I still dislike it, however seeing some friends and colleagues really thrive on the reduction of the commute and being able to fit their caring responsibilities in with less stress and others change their working hours to seemingly odd fragments of days and evenings has been brilliant. True flexibility is what is needed and I really see a positive change in management being able to see it can work, because it is.

  • Hi David, in my lifetime there has never been a better opportunity to change the workplace narrative where true "flexibility" is available for all. If nothing else it can become a huge job creation programme on the back of the significant losses we are facing currently. I hope the government have the CIPD at the forefront of any discussions that are taking place as we need to be using the current crisis to create opportunity and generate a more inclusive "new abnormal". I posted an article in May regarding my concerns and some ideas around how i see it but there are far better individuals and professional bodies that can help create and action appropriate programmes for all. The CBI, TUC, trade bodies including ourselves at the CIPD, a cross section of central and local government experts along with leaders in the public/private sector as well people across the career spectrum demographics and the universities should be involved. It is not about those who work in an office the maximum amount working from home at its peak during the lockdown was 40% and most of these as you point out will return to some form of office environment going forward. What about the key workers, the people in manufacturing, distribution, retail we have to think outside the box and do it quickly because before we know it nothing will have changed except wearing masks!! Do check out my short article as some of the above contained within it. Thank you in advance Paul Hamlin CIPD Manchester Wellbeing Lead. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/newnorm-potentially-new-workplace-discrimination-taken-paul-hamlin-ma/