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The missing piece in the flexible working jigsaw

By March 1, 2021October 14th, 2021HR Magazine, Read
HR Magazine

READ Unless we pay attention to How Much work, as well as to When and Where, the post-Covid world of flex will look very similar to the imperfect world before.

Flexible working has rocketed to prominence since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the concept is not new and many people have been quietly working flexibly for decades, we are clearly experiencing a step-change in the numbers working this way.

For flexible working to be a success, there are three essential elements: where and when the work is done plus, crucially, how much work is required.  Getting all three right gives the employee choice and control, and from that flows benefits around wellbeing, loyalty and performance. 

So far, employers have largely missed the importance of how much. Then in the last year, as the proportion of flexible workers has swelled, so has the noise about issues with it. We’ve heard constantly in the media about how people are struggling with their workload and a lack of boundaries, of ‘living at work’, and the strain of being ‘always on’.

When and where

That’s not so say we haven’t made good progress in the last year. Interviews I carried out in the autumn with 14 employers in Scotland (on behalf of the workplace campaign Flexibility Works, funded by the Scottish Government) confirms a shift in manager thinking, to becoming more accepting of employee choice around when and where.

Managers have learned some very practical lessons about scheduling, about when work is done, in order to keep people safe who have had to continue working onsite. Not everybody has to work in the same place at the same time to still deliver results. The same lessons have been drawn from the experience of managing staff who have had to combine working from home with home schooling: parents have had to flex when they do their work, and the work has still been done.

The enforced experiment in working from home has demonstrated to managers and workers alike that, for many roles, where you work is less important than we thought.  It is this learning that gives such impetus both to worker demand and manager expectation of blended working, part-time at home, part-time in the office, in the post-Covid workplace. All my conversations tally with published surveys showing that many people expect to work two or three days at home and the remainder in the office.

How much

Our collective experience – and struggles with – working flexibly during Covid have sharply illustrated the importance of how much work we do, although the implications for future work design and workload are still to be fully addressed.

Too much work is bad for us. The Health and Safety Executive points to workload as the primary cause of work-related stress. Flexible working, when workload is not addressed, does not help.  More than a third of parents working flexibly say that doing so results in no improvement in quality of life or work life balance.  As a result, freedom to flex when and where you manage too much work does not deliver benefits to employer or employee.

A Gallup poll last November bore this out, showing that 29% of people working remotely all the time are experiencing burnout. And that employees who experience high levels of burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and are 13% less confident in their performance.

Almost all of the managers I spoke to talked about how staff had gone above and beyond during lockdown. Productivity had been maintained, fewer sick days taken. But almost all went on to comment that working like this was not sustainable.

If control over how much is missing, then control over when and where delivers merely disenchantment and disengagement. This could undermine all our hopes for new ways of working post-Covid.

Missing piece

This has been the missing piece in the flexible working jigsaw for the past 30 years, as Jonathan Swan and I argued in our chapter of Flexible Work – Designing our Healthier Future Lives,  Cary Cooper and Sarah Norgate’s examination of flexible working and the challenges of mental health and productivity.  The continued lack of awareness over how much is why flexible working has not so far delivered the promised gains in quality of life or greater gender equality at home or at work.

Covid has changed the expectations not just of those who have begun working from home only in the last year, but also of established home-workers.  YouGov reported in September that 40% of people who had never worked from home before the crisis, do want to retain some home-working afterwards. It is striking that a similar number – almost half – of those who had worked from home full-time before, would like to blend home and office work after.

Our Covid experiment with flexible working and these widespread expectations of future change provide an opportunity to move beyond traditional thinking about how work is structured, designed and delivered. It is a chance to move beyond flexibility as an individual accommodation, generally linked to women’s care responsibilities and see the bigger picture, with benefits as much for business as for individuals.

It is well-established that flexible working can deliver improvements in staff motivation and increased productivity, in greater loyalty and better talent retention.  Employees thrive when they are trusted, with greater control and autonomy in how they manage their own work playing out in improved wellbeing and work-life balance.  But only when how much has been addressed.

Redesigning work

To implement lasting positive change, managers need to develop skills in work design, to be able to analyse each role in their team, to understand its potential for flexibility around when and where. Then they need to augment this with a greater ability to define what has to be done, to what standard and by when. Essentially, to become better at setting clear objectives and assessing staff against clearly defined performance measures. And above all, to become skilled in understanding the demands of the role, its workload and scale. Training managers to unpick and rebuild roles and teams in this way will undoubtedly pay dividends.

Covid has broken apart our traditional, rigid way of working and it has highlighted this missing piece for successful flexible working. Now we have the chance to rebuild our world of work for the better.

First published in HR Magazine on 1st March 2021