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The age of agile and flexible working

Whilst businesses will now be considering what their ‘exit strategy’ is in a future post-furlough world, it is worth remembering that there are some positives to come out of the very difficult challenges that employers have faced in 2020. The pandemic has meant that businesses across every industry have had to adapt in significant ways to the drastic changes to working practices.  Whilst uncertainty about what 2021 will bring remains, now is a good time to consider the new ways of working that have been adopted and whether these can and should be implemented on a long-term basis.  

Whilst businesses will now be considering what their ‘exit strategy’ is in a future post-furlough world, it is worth remembering that there are some positives to come out of the very difficult challenges that employers have faced in the last 12 months. The pandemic has meant that businesses across every industry have had to adapt in significant ways to the drastic changes to working practices.  Whilst uncertainty about what this year will bring remains, now is a good time to consider the new ways of working that have been adopted and whether these can and should be implemented on a long-term basis.  

Prior to the pandemic, remote working was common but not the predominant method of working in most industries. Of course, in some industries such as manufacturing and construction, flexible or remote working has not always been possible. For others, such as office-based businesses, it’s fair to say that historically there has perhaps been a reluctance to fully embrace flexible ways of working, possibly due to a pre-conceived negative view of such arrangements or due to the technical challenges and associated investment, to enable it.

As we’re in the midst of a third national lockdown, it’s safe to say that attitudes towards agile working have shifted quite dramatically.  Where such arrangements have been successful, this presents an opportunity for businesses to reflect on their current working practices and adapt them for the new post-pandemic working world.

The Age of Agile Working
The new world of work looks set to have agile working at the forefront, with the home-working experiment of the pandemic accelerating this culture-shift. With the advent of a range of video-based options, the focus of putting in ‘face-time’ at the office is likely to also change, forcing employers to consider how they can effectively manage and analyse the performance of staff remotely. This may include additional training for management on leading in a virtual world, introducing comprehensive home-working policies, or implementing new technology and systems to monitor performance remotely as well in order to make this long-term shift more effective for both staff and employers.

What are the home-working stats?
A university survey entitled ‘Working from home during COVID-19 Lockdown Project[1], has highlighted a significant rise in the number of employees working agilely; it shows that 86% of those surveyed had been working from home at some point during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Recently, Walker Morris also partnered with Leeds University Business School on a survey of businesses from a wide range of sectors, covering issues related to home working and the return to work. The survey[2] revealed that, among younger employees, of those aged between 18-24, just 31% would like to spend more than 80% of their time at the office. The main reason for this was to increase the social aspect of work and to maximise opportunities for training and career development. Across all industries and age groups it was clear that people without children want to spend a greater proportion of time in the office than those with children.

The survey also revealed a significant difference in outlook depending on the gender of the respondent. Among those who wanted to spend 80-100% of their week at the office, two thirds (66%) were men and a third (34%) were women.

These findings highlight the changing attitudes brought about as a result of the pandemic and it is important that businesses are at least open to discussing employees’ changing desires on the way they want to work in the future.

A recent survey conducted by the Timewise Flexible Job Index, revealed that 78% of advertisements published between December 2019 and October 2020 did not refer to the possibility of flexible working. It therefore seems that not all employers have caught up with the changing trends in working when recruiting for new roles. 

In contrast with other recent surveys – which have found that most employees would value greater flexibility as the norm after the pandemic – Emma Stewart, CEO of Timewise, expressed concern for those who may be excluded from the labour market, such as women and carers, because of the lack of flexible working options available. Those employers who do offer flexible working at the point of recruitment could therefore give themselves a competitive advantage by expanding the talent pool from which they can recruit. It is likely that businesses that are not willing to adapt may risk losing talented employees as a result, and could struggle to attract new staff if they are reluctant to update working practices in line with what the future workforce wants.

Flexible working requests in the post-Covid working world
Throughout the pandemic, many employees have been managing their work alongside childcare responsibilities, care for other dependents, or have been working their usual working day over extended hours during lockdown.

To legitimately refuse employee requests for more flexible working, an employer must be able to provide one of the prescribed reasons set down in the flexible working legislation as to why they think it would not be effective, or appropriate. It’s fair to say that in some cases, employers may now struggle to do this if an entire workforce has worked successfully from home under Government restrictions for the best part of a year. Instead of thinking of reasons to revert to ‘old ways’ of working, many businesses may have to embrace this way of working given that it is going to be around for some time.

While it seemed that we were returning to some measure of normality last summer, it appears now that we will be continuing with remote working for some time under recent Government advice and the latest national restrictions imposed over the winter months and into Spring.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on our workforces has been enormous and will continue to shape how we work, as well as impact on the typical office set-up, for many years to come.

It is expected that employers will be more willing to consider flexible working as a viable option and may even be encouraging of it, to enable employees to sustain the work-life balance that is so important to their mental and physical wellbeing as we work hard as a nation to recover from this challenging year.

Suzanne Treen, Director, Employment Team – Walker Morris LLP

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