Is this the moment for a flexible work revolution?

A mixture of remote and in-office work could increase staff wellbeing. But does the utopian workplace some companies promise really exist?

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As Covid-19 vaccinations are rolled out and case numbers drop, many companies now face a choice. Will they demand that their workers return to 9-to-5 office life, or ask that they continue working from home? While Reach PLC, the owner of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, recently announced that nearly all of its employees would continue to work remotely, Google personnel chief Fiona Cicconi told employees that they must live within commuting distance of the office

Such news stories encourage us to view returning to the office as a yes-no question. That binary, unsurprisingly, divides workforces. Those who enjoy the freedom of home working fear a return to “before”, as they are forced back into old, draining routines; those trapped with little space or juggling childcare commitments, may be desperate to return to a defined work space. Of course, there is a third option: flexible working. 

[See also: The travails of WeWork brings home the freedoms of remote working – and the downsides, too]

Flexible working has existed for decades; a utopian middle way that allows people to spend as much or as little time in the office as they want. The right to request flexible working has existed in UK law since 2014, with employees able to request some days out of the office after 26 weeks with the same employer (though companies have the right to reject this for several reasons). The pandemic has dramatically increased the popularity of flexible working, with many employees now finally armed with evidence that they can work effectively at home, but still eager to see colleagues, leave the house and collaborate. 

The benefits to flexible working – when done right – are undeniable. People are typically more productive when given the choice to go part-time or to choose their own hours, and a degree of home-working has been proven to benefit productivity and wellbeing. After a year of remote working, surely it’s clear that flexible working is possible for most companies? And that the ability for employees to exercise this right would benefit everyone involved?

Not quite. Despite the lessons from the last year, flexible working remains a rare option for most workers. A study by Timewise, a flexible working consultancy, found that only one in five jobs offer some degree of flexibility (sometimes as limited as a few days from home a year) and that half of those jobs also stipulated that such flexibility would only last until the pandemic was over. 

[See also: I check my inbox at 11.30pm and read an email about returning to the office. Disquiet sets in...]

The number of flexible jobs rose by just five per cent during the pandemic – up to 22 per cent of total roles by the end of 2020 from 17 per cent in 2019. And 88 per cent of jobs offering home-working during 2020 stated that remote work would either become permanent, or that office life would resume as before. 

Emma Stewart, a co-founder at Timewise, tells me that, despite much evidence of the benefits of hybrid working, the “flexible working revolution” is held back by three obstacles. “One, many employers equate flexible working to remote working now and an option only for people in autonomous, office-based roles,” she says. “Two, the market for such jobs is still in its infancy. Three – the majority of flexible roles are still either disproportionately low-paid or precarious, giving employees less control over the flexibility available.” 

While Stewart recognises that many companies are beginning to trial flexible work options, she is concerned about the prevalence of “flex-washing”: employers who promote flexible work options to attract employees (particularly women), when the reality is that staff will be forced into the office – or forced home – and trapped in rigid schedules.  

“People looking for jobs need to know what kind of flexible working is genuinely on offer,” she says. “Part-time hours? If so, how many? Some home working? Is the job entirely remote? Has it been stress-tested to ensure that all the outputs required can be achieved, if the role is worked in this manner? What other roles does this one interact with – will they get enough contact, if the role is worked like this? These are the careful kind of considerations managers must make, in order to design jobs that are authentically flexible.”

To combat these barriers, Timewise have a new campaign, Fair Flexible Futures, which aims to help everyone achieve some level of flexibility, regardless of their workplace, with a focus on those industries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, such as retail and hospitality. 

“Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities,” Stewart says. “Women in low-paid roles, many of whom work part time, have been particularly hard hit… Left unchecked, the UK risks splitting into a two-tier workplace, of flex haves and have-nots.”

[See also: Why we should celebrate the demise of the office]

Stewart argues that some degree of flexible working is possible in most roles, even in those that require in-person staff (such as nursing), with expanded access to part-time work and more room for flexible hours. But she emphasises that the key to making flexible working a reality for most workers is its implementation: it must be strategic, deliberate, and done with care. 

“Actioning hybrid and flexible working programmes at scale takes sizeable investment and commitment to change,” she says. Stewart explains that it’s not a matter of telling employees to work how they want, in whatever way they feel, without any thought or support. 

“Managers need training in how to design good flexible jobs, to look after teams who work in different patterns and ways and to ensure flexibility is offered fairly and equitably. The new world of work is creating new challenges and opportunities – and requires new skillsets that cannot be learnt ‘on the job’.”

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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