Beyond Remote Working: The Case for Flexible Working Practices

Remote work is here to stay. So, it's time for a broader conversation about flexibility at work and what that means for everyone.

Over the past few months we’ve all been learning a lot about remote work and working from home, but as lockdown starts to ease in many parts of the world and furloughed employees are returning to work, we need a broader conversation about flexibility at work.

We need to start by accepting that remote work (where possible) is here to stay (although as Stephen Gates of InVision points out in this webinar for the Global Innovation Forum, remote work will eventually be ‘work from anywhere’ rather than ‘work from home’). While a survey by iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics run between March 30 and April 24, this year found that that 76% of office-based employees want to continue to work from home at least part time, workplace changes mean that we will need them to even if this isn’t their preference. In our own survey conducted in May 2020, we found that 47% of respondents said they will feel comfortable returning to a physical office once their company outlines a clear plan that ensures the safety of employees. However, 43% would like their company to offer work from home options even after reopening. 

Physical distancing and disinfection measures needed to minimize infection risk mean that site capacity in most workplaces has been drastically reduced. With a requirement for lower density occupation, space needs to be dedicated to genuine business need – those people who can’t work remotely (due to their role or their circumstances) or those activities that can’t be carried out remotely.

What might stop people working remotely?

Problem: Not everyone spends all day sitting at a computer. Many people (‘key workers’ or ‘essential workers’) don’t have the luxury of being able to work from home (latest estimates suggest that around 36-37% of jobs can be done from home) – there are millions of jobs in education, manufacturing, logistics, retail, utilities, agriculture, construction, waste management and healthcare that rely on people turning up in a given place at a given time, whether to operate machinery in a specific location or to interact with others face-to-face. 


Problem: While I’m lucky enough to have a home with dedicated office space, a nice view out of the garden and reasonable broadband connectivity (most of my colleagues will probably feel that this is a generous description of the string-and-sellotape that connects me to the outside world!), for many their home environment is a constraint on their ability to work from home. This may be down to space – with two or more people working and studying from home (and younger millennials and Gen Z employees may well still be living with parents or in shared accommodation – this isn’t just two homeworking parents and a couple of kids having lessons online), both space and bandwidth can be an issue. 

Problem: Ensuring privacy and confidentiality – should procurement be negotiating a deal in a room where someone else is on a call to a different company? How about the HR manager dealing with a grievance or disciplinary? Or the CFO discussing the organisation’s financial position and strategy?

Problem: Working from the kitchen table on a laptop isn’t ideal even in the short term – but without monitors & peripherals or even a proper desk or chair many employees will feel the physical impact of inappropriate space and poor ergonomicsMental health is also driving a desire to return to the workplace on the part of those living alone, or with caring responsibilities for whom work provides a regular break.


Why else do we need flexibility?

ProblemEducation and childcare will continue to be disrupted. Distancing is particularly problematic in schools where either facilities are overcrowded and designed for large class sizes, or young children have difficulty grasping distancing concepts.

It seems unlikely that schooling and childcare will return to pre-pandemic capacity soon. There are proposals around part time schooling (different year groups or classes on different days); shift-based schooling (teenagers may benefit from this, as they’re not designed to work in the mornings – as most parents are well aware!); blended on site/home schooling and more. While these changes obviously present challenges for schools in terms of staffing, they will also present challenges for parents when school and workdays are no longer aligned. It is also likely that there will be periodic school closures resulting from increased reproduction rates (R-rates) either locally or more widely.

Problem: Employee burnout is an increasing concern as the stress and uncertainty linked to the pandemic combines with the pressures of work and the lack of childcare, schooling or support for carers.

Problem – Ongoing intermittent local/regional lockdowns due to R-rate fluctuations for the foreseeable future. I’ve been clear in other posts that no one can predict or plan the future more than about 6 weeks ahead. We don’t know yet when (or whether) the pandemic will subside, there will be effective treatments or vaccines. Until we know more, we have to accept that there may be times when restrictions may be lifted, and others when they may be re-imposed, depending on local conditions. 

ProblemRecruitment and retention – despite increasing unemployment there are still skills shortages in some areas, and it is likely that while some areas are negatively impacted (travel, hospitality) others will see growth (SaaS companies). However, while there will be people looking for jobs, they may not fit the profile for the industries that are growing. 


Keeping the workforce healthy

Problem: We need to manage sickness and provide infection control. It is no longer acceptable to be in the workplace when sick, but this clashes with the culture of presenteeism – people dragging themselves into work to prove how dedicated they are. Or in some cases because they simply can’t afford to stay at home as they won’t be paid. 


Flexibility requires culture change

Just as we’ve had to change our attitudes to remote work (so many people who were told that it wasn’t possible for them to work from home previously have now been doing so successfully for 3 months, and are being told that the change is likely to be permanent!) so we need to change our attitude to flexibility. By making a genuine commitment to work/life balance we can enable and empower our employees to be more productive. For example, in global organisations, flexibility allows roles to be globally focused rather than local – not restricted by the traditional 9-5 working day but allowing individuals to combine business and personal needs to create the optimal working day. As an example: 

One couple told me that while it is a struggle fitting everything in, they have established a routine which splits the working day/school day between them and allows them to make up the rest of their working hours before breakfast or after the childrens’ bedtime. Both work for global organisations, and this has allowed them to be more flexible in terms of availability to colleagues and clients elsewhere. They may continue working like this at least in part in the long term.

While I’ve heard stories of many people struggling, whether due to lack of appropriate space or technology, because of caring or parenting responsibilities, trying to cope with feelings of isolation, suffering from zoom fatigue or just having general difficulties in adapting to the current way of working, I’m also hearing a lot of positive stories. There are families who are enjoying eating together 3 times a day, people using their ‘commute’ time for exercise (either alone or with their families), parents enjoying being more involved in their childrens’ education. 

Another parent talked about the fact that the 6-hour time difference with the rest of their team now works to their advantage. They have shifted their working day to fit with their team, and as a result are able to cover half the day’s childcare while their partner does the other half. 

Creativity and flexibility around roles and allowing different ways of working will help protect employees from infection. While healthcare workers have already been moving to video, phone or even webchat when quarantining, this kind of flexibility is providing solutions for others as well. 

A call centre worker with caring responsibilities who has been moved to remote working told me how her employers quickly realized that working on the phone at home was difficult, so her role has changed to supporting online chat – there are no issues with background noise and interruptions. However, she is keen to get back to the office as this gives her a break from her responsibilities. 

Different ways of working or using existing skills in different parts of the organization helps build resilience and can bring broader business benefits as ideas and best-practices are shared across the organization and a culture of collaboration develops. As organisations change the way they work, IT leaders will need to provide innovative and flexible solutions (and practical infrastructure) to enable this.

There are many similar stories – I wrote a couple of months ago about my own lifestyle changes and how the lack of travel has given me more time to explore some of the ideas that have been on my list for a while. I’ll be sharing them with you as I (hopefully!) start to make sense of them. 

What is clear, is that while long-term planning is difficult to do, we can create environments that will be flexible enough to allow us to adapt to change. We need to continue to listen to our employees and customers to understand the evolving situation, and as IT professionals, innovate solutions that allow them to continue to be productive while prioritizing their safety.