Flexible working could be the key to saving our economy, but it will fail if the government doesn't get behind it
2020 has brought an unexpected lift to the flexible working revolution; but adopting it as ‘the new normal’ will fail if the government doesn’t get fully behind it.
With opposition leader Keir Starmer calling for a two-week, ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, many parents across the UK are bracing themselves for a return to working from home whilst caring for their children.
The ONS say 50% of workers are taking up the option of remote working and 9 out of 10 want to continue doing so, even once the danger of the pandemic has passed.
But you’d be forgiven for thinking differently given the government’s mixed messages on working from home versus getting back to the office.
Someone needs to tell Boris Johnson and his team that, if they took it more seriously, flexible working could be their secret weapon for getting the economy through this pandemic.
What have the government said about flexible working?
The Conservative messaging around remote working has been, at best, confused: flitting between insistent we all work from home, to saying the economy needs us to go out to work, before returning to asking us to stay in our houses once again.
Comments from those in charge have consistently played on people’s concerns about flexible working and dismissed all notion of moving away from the 9 – 5, office-based roles as nothing short of disastrous.
In August, while a law was introduced that meant employers had the right to request employees to return to the office, the cry from Johnson was that we all needed to ‘get back to work’.
His preference for a culture of presenteeism is not a new phenomenon, he’s made his feelings on that matter quite clear in the past.
When then leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn discussed Labour’s policy of the four-day week during the election campaign last year, Johnson visibly laughed and called the idea ‘cockamamy’.
On a conference call with over 200 senior civil servants, he said it was ‘more efficient and productive’ to go back to the office than working from home.
(Those comments, by the way, were at complete odds with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who said working from home had become the ‘new norm’ and that there was a ‘big argument that home working had raised productivity’.)
Johnson wasn’t alone in sharing this message that businesses would fail if we all stayed at home: later that month, the Treasury Secretary Steve Barclay said we need to return to help the economy ‘get back to normal’.
Companies then spent considerable amounts of time and money making their offices ‘Covid-safe’, only for their staff to be told to return to working from home before the end of September.
As Wired’s Jessica Carter rightly points out in this article, that was resources that could have been better spent on looking after and improving things for the staff that were working from home.
In an age where we literally need to have the option to work from home to protect our health, I find it baffling that the people in charge of this country appear so ill-informed and so outdated on this topic.
They are saying ‘businesses will fail if we don’t all get back to the 9 – 5’, but that is far from true.
But isn’t it down to businesses to adopt flexible working, not the government?
It’s true that the responsibility of delivering flexible working options does lie on the head of the business owners, but we know that simply ‘hoping’ they will embrace it isn’t enough.
Statistics have shown that, previous to the pandemic, especially among parents, huge numbers of employees wished to request flexible hours, but less than half had actually done so, despite it being their legal right.
Research has repeatedly shown that the ‘key blocker’ is resistance from management, people are too afraid to ask because they fear it will have a detrimental affect on their career.
One has to wonder why there has traditionally been so much negativity around remote working.
Despite early fears when the pandemic hit, many companies have actually reported productivity has improved during the changes and huge names like Microsoft and Twitter are leading the way by allowing staff to working from home permanent.
Reports showed an initial impact on work as people adapted to this new way of life and overcame initial barriers, but productivity soon surged and the evidence showed that looking after the wellbeing of employees was the key.
There is an excellent article about this, here.
Being concerned working from home won’t work isn’t an excuse anymore
For remote working on variable hours to be successful, it needs to be adopted across the UK by as many companies as possible, so that it becomes the norm.
It isn't just about allowing people to have a four-day week or allowing people to work from home, it's about giving them the flexibility that they have to be able to get a good work/life balance.
It’s about challenging the belief which is ingrained in our society, that if you are not in an office
Monday – Friday you are lazy and you do not have a proper job
The government have a responsibility to not just implement policies that force this to happen but become advocates for it.
I loved this quote from William Copley, MD of network and communications company Armstrong Bell:
‘Despite the significant impact on the UK economy, it could be argued that the first wave of COVID-19 has introduced several positives by teaching business leaders the importance of flexibility.’
‘Demonstrating that those who were able to think quickly and change their work model during the peak of the pandemic, were those more likely to survive long-term.’ Link
This is the message our government needs to be portraying.
What can be done to help flexible working succeed as part of the ‘new normal’?
To me, it is an absolute no-brainer for the government to become a much more vocal advocate of flexible working and to support those who want to adopt it.
By preventing a situation where all staff are required to return to the office, we reduce the numbers of people having to be around one another unnecessarily, we reduce the risk of spread and we reduce the pressure on our NHS.
Last year, a bill reached parliament that would have required employers to offer flexible working in employment contracts and to advertise vacancies as suitable for this.
The bill failed to complete and so it seems it will make no further progress. I’m unsure whether this was due to Covid, but I’m definitely sure this makes me cross!
If the government wish for us to all return to working from home, if they do decide to ask us all to go into lockdown for half term, they need to do more to make sure this can happen successfully.
They need to do more than they currently are to champion businesses that are investing in the resources needed and financially support those who cannot afford it.
At the very least, they need to lose this outdated attitude that the economy will fail if we don’t all go rushing back to our desks.
Let’s make sure flexible working works for all
Those of us who work from home are tired of hearing the same old rubbish that, because we are at home, we aren't doing a proper job.
It isn't ‘cockamamy’ to work a four-day week, because you feel that is what will fit your life best.
It doesn't mean you aren’t committed to your role if you have to prioritise your home life and leave early to collect the kids from school.
In fact it shouldn't even be considered ‘finishing early’, because you are still doing the work, you are just doing it at a different time.
This could be a momentous opportunity to change the way we work for the better, let’s not let that pass by.