The COVID-19 Effect On Flexible Working: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Dr Nayyara TabassumDr. Nayyara Tabassum is Evidence Officer in the Centre for Ageing Better. (828 words)

In the UK, as soon as the lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson in his televised address on 23 March 2020, one of the first things a lot of employers did was to announce that all staff would need to start working flexibly, with immediate effect. Overnight, companies that did not even have a flexible working policy, reviewed their policies and allowed employees to start working from home.

Research vs Pre-COVID Reality

While research has always shown the business benefits of flexible working on employee productivity and wellbeing, there was not enough buy-in from employers and there were lots of misconceptions and stigma attached to flexible working.

Now with the COVID-19 outbreak, employers have wholeheartedly adopted technology for staff to continue working remotely during lockdown. Job sectors, such as the insurance and banking sectors, which were previously quite averse to flexible working, also allowed staff to work flexibly during the lockdown. The results of this flexible working experiment thanks to the pandemic was that a lot of job sectors are now acknowledging that businesses can continue as usual even when staff work flexibly from home.

Flexible working has a lot of benefits.

  • Better wellbeing: Commuting for long distances can be tiring and unsafe during a pandemic. Flexible working reduces commuting hours and increases employee productivity and wellbeing.
  • Better use of technology to stay connected: Technology has a big role in enabling flexible working. Other than emails and phone, employees can stay connected through digital connectivity apps such Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp or Slack.

Meetings, workshops and webinars can all be held via digital technology. A lot of employers will also now find that trips abroad to attend a seminar may well be substituted by a webinar attendance. In the Centre for Ageing Better, we have always had a flexible working policy. We organise fun events like an online pub quiz every Friday where staff can come together for some light-hearted fun or a chat.

  • Better use of office space: Employers will now find that if they allow more employees to work flexibly, office spaces can be better organised and commercial rent can be lower.

This is not to say that flexible working does not have its own challenges.

  • Digital excess: There is such a thing as too many video calls a day. Excessive digital technology could lead to a blurring of boundaries between what is work and what is personal. It is easy to lose track of time and work overtime when working from home. It is also easy to get stressed with the use of multiple digital platforms used all at the same time.
  • Carers: Employees with caring responsibilities for children, or those caring for sick or disabled or older relatives, face disruptions to their work while working from home. Some of them find the work-family-caring balance quite difficult and face productivity challenges too.
  • Adequate work from home equipment: Employees without access to fast Wi-Fi, or digital tools such as handset or adequate furniture need to be supported. Those who share living spaces and do not have their own private workspace face challenges as well.

However, none of these work from home challenges are insurmountable. Centre for Ageing Better is working with Timewise and employers to support flexible working for older workers. Employers need to be cognisant of their staff work from home needs and need to adapt accordingly to support their staff. For example, part-time working hours for those with caring responsibilities, or providing technological equipment or gadgets to help staff work from home, are examples of some good employee practices.

Flexible working laws?

The UK always entitled workers to request flexible working. But a lot of employers and employees were hesitant to adopt flexible working. The day may not be far when the laws are changed after the pandemic is over to make flexible working policy a default for most employers. Even if the laws are unchanged, the COVID-19 lockdown has made flexible working acceptable, shown what’s possible and perhaps even make it a norm for employers to allow their staff flexible working policies.

No excuse for not allowing flexible working

If the coronavirus lockdown has shown us one thing, it is that almost all jobs can be adapted for flexible working patterns. Engineers can work flexibly. Podcast talk show hosts can work flexibly. Banks have allowed staff to work flexibly.

In fact, any job that requires the use of a computer, has no excuse to not allow remote or flexible working to employees. Post-COVID, all events or meetings must also provide web links for inclusive joining by those working remotely.

Despite lockdowns gradually being lifted, Google and Facebook have extended flexible working for their employees. In the near future, this experiment with flexible working due to the COVID-19 lockdown may result in more employers and businesses actively adopting and benefitting from a flexible work policy.

Dr. Nayyara Tabassum is Evidence Officer in the Centre for Ageing Better.