Is the future of flexible working at home?

By Gemma Dale, Wellbeing Manager at the University of Manchester and Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University
2 June 2020
In March I was putting the finishing touches to my book about flexible working. It aimed to help employers understand both the business case for, and research relating to, flexible working, as well as support them in successfully implementing it. Then, just before completion, we were soon effectively undertaking a mass flexible working experiment as a result of Covid-19.  
Since then we have seen a range of surveys and articles suggesting that there will be an increased demand for flexible working following the pandemic, with some even going so far as to suggest that the traditional office is obsolete and the future of work is remote. But these predictions may be somewhat premature. We have been working in a similar way for nearly a century: the five-day week and eight-hour day are firmly embedded in our (often change-resistant) organisational cultures. Will a few months (hopefully!) of working from home change an entire system in favour of more flexible forms of working? Only time will tell.  

Benefits of flexible working

There are many evidence-based benefits of flexible working in general, and homeworking in particular. Flexible working can support inclusion, help to reduce the gender pay gap, improve productivity, attract and retain talent, reduce the carbon footprint of commuting and, in some circumstances, improve employee wellbeing. 
Despite these established benefits, only a small number of organisations have truly embraced flexible working as it has been beset with barriers and stereotypes. Research has found, for example, that both managers and colleagues have negative perceptions of flexible workers, and part-time workers in particular can face career marginalisation and stagnation.  When writing my book, I devoted a whole section to how technology acts as a barrier to successful flexible working. This was not about the availability of appropriate technology, as most of it was routinely available on organisational systems or free in the cloud, but a lack of skills and willingness to engage. This is one barrier that has very much been torn down in recent months. But others remain, including those negative perceptions and impacts upon careers.  

Don’t conflate flexible working with homeworking

When we consider whether the future really is flexible, there are key points to consider. First of all, we should be careful not to conflate flexible working and homeworking. Homeworking is just one form of flexible working, a term that encompasses a range of working practices also including part-time working, compressed and annualised hours, job shares, career breaks, flexi-time and staggered hours. We must also remember that the current circumstances do not equate to typical homeworking or flexible working. When individuals, teams or whole organisations move to flexible working, they usually do so in a strategic, organised and planned way. Most in our sector moved to homeworking in a matter of days or even hours, learning quickly along the way. Effective flexible working in normal times does not also simultaneously include working in times of personal restrictions, extreme anxiety and school closures.  
However, whilst our current ways of working do not reflect typical homeworking, it is entirely possible that employees have become rapidly aware of the possibilities that working from home affords them, from reducing stressful, long and expensive commutes to more time for self and family. With many universities confirming that at least some of their teaching will move online in the new academic year alongside the significant challenges of effectively social distancing campus environments, there is going to be no sudden return to the office for most HE staff. As more months go by with work being effectively undertaken, it may well provoke some to wonder why they need to go back to the office at all.  

What HR can do to prepare for a potential increase in flexible working requests

Whilst those surveys that indicate employee desire for flexible working will increase in the future may well be correct, it remains to be seen if this will translate into formal flexible working requests. Even if it does, will these requests be agreed by line managers?  
Universities and their HR departments must prepare for this potential increased demand.  
There are some simple steps that can be taken now, including:
  • Listen to employee experiences of homeworking. Reflect on what has worked and what challenges arose when working from home. This can help to inform a future flexible working strategy – unlocking potential benefits, for employers and employees.     
  • Consider short and long-term approaches to flexibility. Some requests for flexible working may be short-term in nature. Employees may need to keep balancing care, living with a health condition that increases their vulnerability or supporting family members through the crisis. A process that differentiates between these and permanent requests can speed up responses and provide support to employees in balancing work and other responsibilities. 
  • Prepare and train people managers. Brief managers that they may receive an increase in demand for flexible working and homeworking in particular. Ensure that they are familiar with your policies and the relevant legislative framework. Most importantly, provide guidance on how to consider requests for an element of homeworking.  
Homeworking may or may not be the future of work – it is simply too soon to know. For each person who wishes to continue working from home there may well be another pining to return to the social aspects of campus life. For those employees who do want to continue to work from home, organisations and HR teams will need to consider how they meet that demand, now and in the longer term. The risks of failing to do so may include damaging engagement, talent attraction and employee retention.   
Organisations that do wish to reap the benefits of flexible (including home) working cannot assume that the current situation will automatically create or deliver it, no matter what he media headlines might suggest. A more flexible future will need to be deliberately created and crafted. Otherwise, we may find that we quickly default to familiar (‘old normal’) ways of working.