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  1. Spotlight on Policy
11 January 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 11:06am

The future of work is flexible

How Covid-19 is breaking down barriers to flexible working.  

By Dr Sarah Forbes

The UK has seen a steep rise in the number of people working from home during the pandemic. A recent survey showed 86 per cent of employees had 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-19 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 organisations are keen to support flexible working in the future, and employees are keen on flexible working opportunities, where should 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 that is mutually beneficial, including ways of working and work location. There are opportunities to use flexible working to improve wellbeing and productivity, encourage more women into senior roles and access new pools of talent.

Think creatively; organisations can benefit from revised use of office space, while making the retained space a more flexible environment for teams to meet and ensuring 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 need to enable inclusive flexible working.

Change the culture; as Covid-19 helps to break down stigma around flexible working and care, with shared parenting practices on the rise and more people engaged in caring responsibilities, policymakers 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, 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 improves results, employee wellbeing and loyalty. People respond best when they feel supported to work in harmony with their other commitments. They know they’ve got to produce results and meet targets, but it can be in a way that works for them. This can be achieved through measuring by results, rather than sticking to the old mode of working.

Dr Sarah Forbes and Dr Holly Birkett at based at the Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham. 

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight report on the future of work and diversity. You can download the full edition here

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