Will coronavirus prompt a flexible working backlash?

Flexible working has been having a moment in the spotlight. Enforced homeworking for many, and the need to restructure teams, rethink working hours, and ensure safe working conditions for those who cannot work from home, has led to excitable claims that there will be no going back to old working patterns in the “new normal”

Perhaps also possible is a flexible working backlash. For many enforced homeworkers, the COVID-19 experience has meant they’ve worked in cramped or unsuitable places, and parents have had to juggle work while looking after their children.

It’s no surprise some have been put off the idea of working “flexibly” in future. Less obvious but no less important is the fact that boundaries between work and personal time have become far more blurred.

There’s a risk our pandemic experience will result in a baked-in “always on” culture.

Even before lockdown, I had been concerned that for too many people flexible working simply translates into a licence to manage too much work. Flexible working which does not deliver improved work/life balance for the employee, equally does not deliver performance gains for the employer.

There is a negative impact on engagement, because the employee’s expectation of personal benefit is not met.

For the employer, benefits from flexible working arise from the control which the employee gains over their work, and the two-way trust between manager and staff member which becomes the foundation of a more adult-adult working relationship.

To enable this, managers need to be confident in setting objectives, to be clear about milestones and reporting requirements, and then to be able to step back from where and when work is done to concentrate on by when and to what standard.

Lockdown has provided much evidence of the downsides of working from home, especially for working parents.

It can be very amusing for colleagues when a child gate-crashes a Zoom meeting but for the parent it reinforces the need to establish a longer working day, to start early, finish late in order to manage the demands of the double role of worker and parent in the single combined home/workplace.

Being “always on” is the worst kind of presenteeism, with no hiding place from the demands you make on yourself to perform as you would in the office.

The manager’s responsibility must be to set clear objectives in order to preserve employee mental and physical wellbeing. But widespread enforced homeworking has exposed weakness in goal setting, leaving staff confused and demoralised about what is expected of them.

Many office-based teams are currently being told to expect to continue home working for the rest of this year, so in the short term at least we can expect continued widespread home working.

Longer term there seems likely to be increased demand for flexibility. More than 13 million people are reported to be planning to request a change to their working pattern.

Many surveys report that people want to continue to work from home two or three days a week, even once it is safe to return to office life.

Unilever’s CEO was recently quoted by the FT predicting a hybrid future of work, with people blending time between the office and home. Millennials in particular are looking beyond the cities to places where they can afford to buy a home, intending still to travel into the office but less frequently.

This could and should be an opportunity for businesses across the UK to embrace flexible working as a key tool to unlock greater employee wellbeing, engagement and performance.

But without careful thought, without supporting manager skills development in objective setting and role design, there must be worrying potential for disappointment, and for widespread disillusion with flexible working, disengagement and reduced performance.

Sarah Jackson is visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management