Businesses should beware false flexibility as lockdown eases

There is no doubt that the future of work should be flexible. However, it would be misguided to confuse the full-time remote working that we have seen over the past year with genuine flexible working.

With the UK government now hinting that the call to work from home could end from 21 June, businesses must think seriously about delivering a flexible working strategy that truly works for their team.



Where to work?

Across the UK, 75% of people have suffered with burnout during lockdown, while working hours have increased by as much as 25%. Clearly, universal home working cannot be a sustainable option for businesses or, crucially, their employees.

As lockdown easing continues and the vaccine rollout gathers further pace, it is time to recognise that full-time working from home – without the option to do otherwise – offers only 'false flexibility'.  

Businesses have also seen wellbeing and productivity plummet during lockdown, with young people some of the most affected by inappropriate home workspaces and a lack of in-person opportunities at the very start of their career.

Even prior to a third national lockdown, 59% of young people were struggling to stay motivated when faced with the isolation of remote work. So, it is no surprise that just 16% of young people reported that they would want to work from home on a permanent basis following the pandemic.

Indeed, while people have adapted to work in more agile ways during lockdown, few actually want to leave the office behind for good, with 55% of people wanting to split their time between the two. So, to offer true flexibility, businesses must give employees choice over both how and, crucially, where they work.


The traditional nine-to-five

Without a commute and recovery time to set clear boundaries between work and home life, the two have become increasingly blurred. In fact, lockdown homeworking has led to employees taking shorter lunch breaks, working through sickness and a sense of feeling 'always on'.

With people also working longer hours at home than they would have done in the office, these findings comes as little surprise. It’s clear that workers need a viable alternative to a culture of presenteeism that has been exacerbated further still by home working. However, not only can greater flexibility around working hours benefit wellbeing, it can also drive better gender equality in the workplace.

While lockdown has shone an important light on the ways in which traditional working hours disproportionately disadvantage women, greater flexibility would empower all workers to manoeuvre around personal and family commitments that might fall during the traditional working day.


Trust in your team

Without incorporating greater flexibility around hours and location into their workplace policies, businesses risk failing to meet the diverse needs of their workforce. But for flexibility to be truly possible, building trust and empathy is key.

With people isolated from colleagues in lockdown, reports of workers’ losing faith in the empathy of their executive team should not to be overlooked. Now is the perfect moment for businesses to refresh their corporate culture as part of the drive to embrace greater flexibility.

People teams can do this by offering time out of work for proactive professional development, further learning and mentoring. This would ensure that employees feel more fulfilled in their role, but also help to retain staff for the long-term.

With Zoom fatigue also on the rise, businesses must embrace opportunities to bring people together and create meaningful connections at all levels of their business. This begins with an empathetic flexible working policy that continues to offer access to the in-person networking, community and ‘water cooler’ moments which manifest best in the office.


Where next?

Clearly, the world of work has changed in the pandemic, but with the prospect of further lockdown easing, businesses should think seriously about the next steps in developing or updating their a flexible working policy.

While lockdown has seen people work remotely at an unprecedented scale, we must not mistake this for true flexibility. Without choice in location and hours, or support from employers, businesses risk jeopardising not only productivity, but also wellbeing and employee retention, just as recovery from the pandemic begins.


Niki Fuchs is managing director of OSiT