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Tim Scott, HR Director of Fletchers Solicitors, discusses where he sees flexible working in today’s corporate climate.
The impact of the pandemic on our work and working lives will be felt for a long time, possibly permanently, and in many different ways. We have seen changes that could previously have only happened over a long period of time take place almost overnight. For example, at Fletchers, we went from an estate of desktop computers and one desk per person to remote working on pretty much any device people could get their hands on in the space of a week!
Flexible working is one area that seems to have taken a leap forward during the pandemic (for some people, it is important to note). The adoption by employers of flexible working – that is, a flexible approach to when, where and what times people work – could be described as ‘glacial’ previously. The default nine-to-five approach, where people’s performance is measured in some way by their amount of presence in the office, prevailed until very recently. We know from numerous “future of work” surveys that having tasted flexibility during the pandemic, many knowledge workers at least are saying that it is something they now prize more highly than salary increases. From an employer’s point of view, we now need to be offering flexibility lest our people vote with their feet and go to another employer who can give them what they want.
Does this mean there has been a wholesale conversion of previously resistant employers who have now seen the flexible light? In short, no. There will be a significant cohort of employers who believe in the traditional model, whose command-and-control management tendencies won’t permit flexibility. We are seeing this play out in the media with some big companies (you don’t need me to name them) demanding a “return to the office” whilst others recognise the benefits of flexibility. Employees will find themselves at the mercy of their company’s philosophy on this front and here is one potential downside: if you value flexible working highly but work for a boss who doesn’t, you may find that you are judged differently to those who slot automatically back into the 9-5 routine.
Management culture can be a big barrier to flexible working, but so can fellow employees. We’ve probably all heard the phrase ‘part-timer’ used as an insult, or at best as ‘banter’. Company culture can inhibit people asking for flexibility if they see it as ‘not how things are done around here’ – and HR people and senior management alike will have to make sure they are promoting the (proven) benefits of flexibility in the workplace if we are to keep the positive gains some companies have made as a result of recent working methods.
The UK Government generally makes positive noises about flexible working, albeit there have been mixed messages about the return to the office from within the Cabinet. The Government’s attempts to legislate to encourage flexibility have not been entirely successful. Shared Parental Leave, for example, was hailed as a family-friendly and gender-equalising initiative, but the uptake has been minimal with an estimated 1-2% of those eligible using it, although this is growing slowly. A right to request flexible working also exists in employment law, however the emphasis is on request and in truth the legislation has very little bite and only applies after 26 weeks service.
So what is around the corner? A Government flexible working task force, co-chaired by Peter Cheese of the UK’s professional HR body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), is currently considering, among other things, whether that 26-week waiting period to request flexible working should be removed. They are also looking at whether employment contracts will need to change to enable the more flexible working that we have seen during the pandemic. This might sound academic but could be a key issue to resolve for workers’ rights as the ’emergency’ working approaches we have seen in the past few months need to be normalised. As Peter Cheese says, “This is an opportunity to shift ways of working, which have barely changed for generations.”
So, people who want to continue flexible working post-pandemic are potentially up against management culture, corporate culture, legislation and stereotyping – none of which will be new hurdles to overcome. What is different is that there is the will amongst some businesses to make it work because they know it can – in a CIPD survey in April 2021, 71% of employers said that the increase in homeworking during the pandemic had either boosted or made no difference to productivity. And what’s more, the more perceptive employers will have noticed that not only can it work, in future more people will be demanding it.
Tim Scott (pictured above) is an award-winning HR Director and Chartered Fellow of the CIPD with over twenty years of generalist experience in roles across the private, public and voluntary sectors.