COVID-19 business resilience and the future of work

Geraldine Higgins from Flexibility Works talks us through what businesses can expect and do to prepare for more flexible working.

Article

10 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic forced countless numbers of employees across all sectors into home working overnight. Few were adequately prepared. Many were cynical about maintaining performance and productivity levels under such circumstances. However, revelations have been made and opportunities have been created as a result of this situation.

Will this signal a permanent seismic shift in working culture? It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, we are learning a great deal about how, when and where we work best.

Business Benefits

Flexibility Works is all about promoting the business benefits of flexible working. It is what we do. Helping businesses to reap the benefits of a flexible working culture, where people have control over their work and home life and are happier and more productive as a result.

Whether or ot you were unconvinced about remote working before COVID-19, there is no denying that the evidence is clear in terms of business benefits:

  • costs savings on property and travel
  • improved productivity
  • better employee work-life balance
  • attracting and retaining diverse talent
  • contribution to achieving emissions targets

Pre-COVID, *75% of people in Scotland either had or wanted flexible working so there was already a high demand and *90% who work flexibly say it has a positive effect on their wellbeing.

Yet still there was a perception in certain sectors that flexible working and remote working was not possible for many roles and professions. But now, those of us fortunate enough to have work and to be safe working at home have become part of the biggest global experiment of home working. As a result, the notion that ‘remote working isn’t possible’ [1] is being swept away.

Employers are discovering that prioritising outcomes, rather than focussing on hours worked is more effective, particularly through the pandemic while people work around commitments at home. Proving that there is no need to physically see someone in the office in order to know they are working.

Presenteeism should become a thing of the past. Effective business leaders communicate openly with employees, agree clear objectives and trust people to get the job done.

[1] YouGov poll of Scottish Businesses, 2019

Converting the cynics

Stuart Dougal, 57, is a director at professional services firm KPMG based in Glasgow.

Stuart said: “Before the coronavirus I was always in the office Monday to Friday, and thought I’d be in a shirt and tie till I retired. Now I’m working from home wearing a t-shirt every day.

“My job involves a lot of networking, usually seeing people face-to-face and sometimes entertaining clients in the evening too. I couldn’t see how that would be possible from home. But actually, the technology we have means I can still do all that networking, it’s just virtual. I’ve adapted remarkably quickly and so have my colleagues.

“I’m able to get my job done just as well as I could before, which has been a huge surprise. Before COVID-19, I would have said there was absolutely no way I’d work from home. But now I would. Not all the time. But for some of it.

“I can see now the benefits for the business in what I can get done, though I’m still exploring how to make home working better for me too. It’s still a work in progress for me. But I definitely see home-working as a viable option now, and nobody’s more surprised about that than me.”

Many law firms with very traditional working patterns have also come to recognise the benefits of remote working from this experience. For example, stretching hours of availability for clients, to include early mornings and evenings -with plenty of flexibility throughout the day to manage commitments at home - can deliver an improved service and also gives employees more flexibility.

Virtual meetings allow a range of professional services firms to meet the needs of clients based in different time zones, blurring the lines between working and leisure time. This is not a concept that everyone is comfortable with, however when people have more autonomy over working schedules, they can build flexibility in where needed and also deliver a great service for clients.

Key insights and learning

We have seen some good practice emerging in relation to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly for those working in office-based roles. It is important to consider the inequality gap in relation to colleagues working in lower paid roles, women and other minority groups as well as people with disabilities.

Employee wellbeing has also been a key focus throughout the pandemic and should remain a key focus for business leaders over the coming months.

  • Kindness is underrated
    Managers showing understanding and empathy to colleagues about their personal circumstances and enabling them to flex as needed throughout the week. A good example was a Senior Lawyer we spoke to who sent his team a voucher for a takeaway meal with their families as a thank you for their efforts in recent weeks.
  • Honesty is key
    Senior leaders sharing their personal experiences of balancing work and home life, sharing the challenge on a human level, and building rapport with colleagues, while also offering support through webinars and personal calls. Organising regular check-ins is important. When we are not seeing each other face to face and not picking up the subtle cues that may signal someone needs support, either professionally or personally.
  • Increased awareness of mental health and wellbeing.
    People are talking about wellbeing at work on a scale we have not seen before. Managers are learning what to look out for if their colleagues are feeling under pressure. Ensuring colleagues have access to the right training and support is important. Some larger organisations have mental health first aiders or employee networks where colleagues can go to for informal help or support.

Challenges & Risks

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for businesses have been well documented in the media, and there are also some key risks to consider at more personal level.

Firstly, for those juggling work and children at home, this situation has created a great deal of additional stress and anxiety. It is important to highlight that this is not home working as we know it. The current scenario would likely deter people from ever wanting to work from home again. However, the working arrangements people have had to adapt to during the pandemic certainly would not be considered successful remote working.

There is also the issue of over-working. We do not want to move the conversation from ‘working from home’ to ‘living at work.’ Burn-out is a serious issue and all employers have a responsibility to establish a distinction between home and work life. Putting an out of office notification on emails with an alternative contact is a good way to switch off. We should also be thinking about jobs in terms of ‘human-size’ roles with realistic expectations about what people can achieve, especially with the introduction of part-time education in Scotland from August 2020.

Many working parents or carers will be required to take on more of the home schooling or caring duties. The likelihood is that this will negatively impact many working mothers in households where the male partner earns a higher salary. Employers need to recognise the challenges this creates for individual employees and accommodate levels of flexibility that ensure outdated stereotypes are not reintroduced. Scottish business leaders have made significant progress in relation to gender parity in recent years and must ensure this does not become another development that is negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Converting the cynics

Lesley Tait, 49, from Dundee, usually works full time in an office managing childcare provision in and around the city for Flexible Childcare Services Scotland.

She said: “I was always in the office before the coronavirus pandemic and when we had to start working from home, I hated it. I didn’t have the paperwork, books and usual things I needed, and I was working from my kitchen - I cringed if my husband or teenage daughter could be seen or heard in the background of video calls.

“In a previous job no one was allowed to work from home, and I think I was somehow hard-wired to think it was a negative thing to do, it meant you were skiving and not doing your best.

“I felt so uncomfortable at home that I continued to go to the office one or two days a week and sometimes my colleague would be there, and we’d work in separate areas.

“My line manager could see I was struggling with working from home, but she gave me a good reality check. She pointed out that if myself and my colleague both got ill from being near each other, there would be no one to run the service. And that by using my car to get to work, I was on the road when I didn’t need to be in a pandemic. It was a light bulb moment.

“From then on I tried to embrace home working. I put my paperwork in a bag and brought it all home, and I realised that video calls were all passing successfully, with no one batting an eye if they saw my family in the background.

“The biggest surprise has been how much I can get done. I’m so productive without distractions from the office. And it’s not just work. I get the washing done and things around the house. My time is used so much more efficiently.

“I’ve shifted my hours slightly too. I’m an early riser, so I now start work around 7am and finish by 2pm or 3pm. My husband often finishes his manufacturing job around that time and we take our dog for a lovely long walk.

“Whenever I was in the office, I worked 9am to 5pm so afternoon dog walks weren’t a possibility. The difference this is all making to my work life balance and wellbeing is huge.

“I can’t quite believe I’m saying this but when we’re allowed to go back to the office full time, I don’t think I will. I have missed my team and some things are better when you can all be together. But I can’t imagine being in an office five days a week anymore when I know I actually get more done for work - and for me - at home.”

Lesley’s team runs a childcare day centre as well as a mobile creche for events. Flexible Childcare Services Scotland offers parents more flexibility over childcare by charging by the hour and on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than having to sign up to a term of specific session times.

Working culture – the future of work

Looking to the future, there are a few things business leaders can begin to consider for a successful return to our future world of work.

  1. Engage with colleagues and find out how they are feeling, their views on aspects of remote working and ideas they may have about potential future working patterns. Flexibilityworks.org offers a free employee survey programme which can support you with this.

  2. Evaluate the impact of the current situation on your business and your people. Establish some clarity on the future of flexibility in your organisation, giving people permission to self-roster as teams and design working patterns that meet their individual needs and support the organisation.

  3. Start work now on the culture you want to have in place when the restrictions for business are significantly reduced. Consider the policies, plans and support would you need to provide to improve your employees’ work-life balance for good.

  4. Enhance managerial and leadership capability. Ensure you are thinking and talking about flexible job design, offering support to manage difficult conversations, and establishing flexible working champions and role models.

Many business leaders are already thinking about these issues. As your future plans begin to take shape, Flexibility Works can offer support to engage employees and contribute to your plan for a safe and successful return to work as you begin to re-shape your working culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for businesses. However, there are also significant opportunities to rebuild better, aligning working culture in Scotland with that of other progressive countries like Germany, Norway and New Zealand. Now is the time to position flexibility, wellbeing, and work life balance at the heart your organisation and reap the benefits in terms of improved productivity and performance.

For more information and support on flexible working visit Flexibilityworks.org

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