Flexibility is the Future of Work

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By Dr Sarah Forbes and Dr Holly Birkett
Co-directors of the Equal Parenting Project

The UK has seen a steep rise in the number of employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a recent survey showing that 86% of the employees surveyed worked from home during the first COVID-19 lockdown, with 75.3 per cent of parents reporting they would like to work flexibly in the future.

Further research shows that managers have also had positive experiences managing staff remotely during lockdown seeing increases in productivity and commitment even in sectors where working from home has previously been unpopular. New data also suggests that the mass move towards flexible working during COVID has broken the stigma around flexible working in the UK, and that where there have been performance management issues these have generally been ongoing issues, not a result of remote working.

So if managers and organisations are keen to support more flexible working in the future and employees are keen to have more access to flexible working opportunities, where do we go from here?

Start a dialogue, now, between managers and employees who have worked flexibly during lockdown to identify what you can build on together that is mutually beneficial, including ways of working and work location. There are opportunities to use flexible working to improve wellbeing, productivity, encourage more women into senior roles and access new talent pools.

Think creatively; organisations can benefit from revised use of office space, whilst making the retained space a more flexible environment for teams to come together and still enabling space to ensure that those who want to come into work more regularly still can, as findings show that working remotely over long periods of time can be isolating or impractical for some.

Organisations can also make flexible working more inclusive by covering overhead costs for homeworkers using the existing HMRC scheme and training line managers in managing remote teams. This is also an opportunity for organisations to review flexible working policies, how they measure performance and what tools and support they can provide to enable inclusive flexible working wherever possible.

Change the culture As COVID-19 helps to break down stigma around flexible working and care, with shared parenting practices on the increase and more people engaged in caring responsibilities, policy makers should consider how this can be leveraged to support the labour market attachment of professional women, promote gender equality in the workplace and help reduce the gender pay gap. If men continue to work more flexibly following COVID-19, the ingrained gendered caring norms, which have negatively impacted the career progression of women will begin to dissolve, levelling the playing field for men and women in the workplace.

COVID-19 has shown that moving from a mindset of presenteeism to a mindset of trust and flexibility actually leads to improves results, employee wellbeing and loyalty. People respond best when they feel supported to work in harmony with their other commitments and enjoyments. They know they’ve got to produce results and meet targets but it can be in a way that works for them rather than overshadowing them. This can be achieved through trust and flexibility, and measuring by results, rather than the old one-size-fits-all mode of working.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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