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Waking up to the era of flexibility

Marcus Beaver, UKI Country Leader - Alight Solutions

Factors that affect employee satisfaction have seismically shifted over the last year and a half, with a new spotlight on well-being. Whilst benefits programmes and perks have always played a key part in recruitment and retention, the new king in town is flexibility.

Yet comments have undoubtedly sent the eyebrows of many remote workers soaring. Last month alone Oliver Dowden stated that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks” and conservative MP Jake Berry accused civil servants of ‘woke-ing’ from home. These out of touch remarks highlight the misunderstand of what it means to work remotely.

The truth is that employees can’t ‘unsee’ the benefits of remote working. Culling the grinding drudgery of a daily commute has provided workers with enough time to look after themselves and their loved ones. In addition, they’ve been able to find a working style that works for them, with space to focus, whilst utilising technology to communicate and collaborate with colleagues when needed.

Debunking the ‘woke-ing’ from home myth
Flying in the face of people’s real experiences, Dowden’s extrapolation fuelled the myth that home-workers are more concerned with friperies such as beating their pedal-powered personal best than they are about delivering at work. It’s no coincidence that in the same speech he said that civil servants working from home should ‘lead by example’ by returning to the office. His assertion is clear. Those who work from home are slackers and should be shamed. Those who return to the office set the example all employees should follow.

It’s no surprise that a union representing civil servants said these comments were an “insult” to thousands of dedicated government workers who’ve kept the country running throughout a pandemic that has demanded more of them than ever. The idea that we must return to office working is also an insult to those who choose to consider evidence rather than rhetoric.

The office of old is dead
Time and again research tells us that traditional office working is unproductive. Open Plan offices drain creativity and minimise communication. The average commute of an hour increases instances of depression by over a third. Much of the latest insight shows that collaborative cultures can be built remotely.

It’s evidence that Boris Johnson seems to have ignored as he echoed the ‘back to the office’ mantra in his party conference keynote speech, saying that a “productive workforce” only comes from “face to face meetings and water cooler gossip”. For someone whose office is a mere staircase away, the PM’s message that workers should get back to the grind of the daily commute might seem a hard one to swallow. And one that, for many, makes no sense.

The reality is that employees can’t ‘unsee’ the benefits of remote working. The office culture of old is dead. With increased flexibility, where work is about what you do, not where you do it, employees find time and space to deliver while also managing their personal lives more effectively. And yes, that means even having the time to exercise!

Welcome to the era of flexible working
But, that doesn’t mean they are blind to the benefits of shared experiences. Shared spaces offer the chance to interact with colleagues, to deepen relationships, to learn and sometimes to simply escape the four walls of home! As our research shows, two-thirds (65%) of workers want the flexibility to combine office working with working from home. When given the choice, the majority of workers want the flexibility to choose how and where they work, not be dictated to from a place of managerial mistrust and dictates handed down from on-high.

Before Covid-19 many companies were in the dark about flexible working, but the last 18 months have proven employees’ ability to shift to home offices, adapting to better fit their lifestyles – without compromising productivity. Thankfully, many forward-thinking employers are offering greater flexibility, supported by smart use of technology, fuelling cultures of trust and accountability with an emphasis on employee wellbeing.

It is time all employers wake up. Office employees are now leaving roles as part of what is described as ‘the Great Resignation’ – no more is the office-based obsession that fails to respect employees. Those that adapt, and welcome the era of flexible working, will in turn attract and retain the talent they need to survive.

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