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Agile working – Covid-19’s legacy for the world of work

Whatever your personal view, and, for many, it may have changed significantly since 23 March, the homeworking/office working/flexible working debate has never been so high profile.

For some getting out of the office has been a revelation – no commute, more contact with family (particularly for those working full time). For others it has reinforced the benefits of the office – peace and quiet (compared to home schooling at least) to concentrate, colleagues on hand for support and banter, and a clear dividing line between home life and work life.

The disparate views on homeworking can be seen clearly when looking at the multitude of statistics, surveys and reports on productivity, wellbeing and job satisfaction that have appeared since lockdown began. For every survey saying productivity and wellbeing is up there is another identifying the negative impact of isolation and loss of employee engagement. The same can be said for the impact on the environment. While some herald congestion free cities and the benefits of people being able to move out to the countryside, other reports suggest it is the longer commutes that create a disproportionately high level of CO2 emissions. Some argue that energy inefficient homes can create a 75% increase in energy use (and therefore a 75% increase in the carbon footprint) via the use of gas and electricity while working at home compared to what you save by not going to work in a car.

Despite that, it seems inevitable that post pandemic – whenever that might be – there will be a higher percentage of home working (whether in whole or in part) than we have previously experienced. Research from the CIPD has indicated that employers expect the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis in the future to increase from 18% pre-pandemic to 37% once the crisis is over. The proportion of people expected to work from home all of the time is expected to rise from 9% to 22%.

This new way of working has the potential to bring benefits to businesses and the individuals they employ. While it will take some years before we clearly see the true legacy of the pandemic on the world of work undoubtedly the changes that last will be the ones that support businesses to meet the same goals as they currently have – profitability, productivity and attracting and retaining talent to name but a few.

One of the potentially significant benefits of homeworking for businesses is that it removes geographical barriers to employment in a way we haven’t seen before with co-workers potentially being employed not just from different cities, but different countries. Similarly, we are likely to see a lot more asynchronous working. That may be because of time differences between employees living in different time zones, it may be due to employees having different commitments such as school age children, or it may simply be a preference. So working nine to five may finally become the exception and not the rule. These things could well work in favour of increasing diversity within the workforce.

But remote working is also going to bring challenges. How is a new recruit made to feel part of a team that he or she has never met. How is loyalty engendered at arm’s length? How does “on the job” training occur when there is no contact between junior and senior members of staff? Can poor performance be effectively monitored and improved remotely? Can employee wellbeing issues be identified and rectified without face to face contact? At the very least managing these issues remotely will place many people outside their comfort zone and add an extra layer of complexity.

These challenges are not insurmountable – some sectors have managed teams remotely for years. Strong, effective leadership and team management will be key to successfully dealing with the issues highlighted. Without the nuances of human interaction clarity of communication will be essential. Managers will need to know what employment law and HR issues may arise and the options available for dealing with them. What should trigger alarm bells, what policies and procedures might be relevant, what might happen if concerns aren’t addressed and when should support be sought from HR and/or legal professionals? Support will need to flow from the top down.

The UK Governments proposal, contained in the Employment Bill introduced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019, to consult on whether to make flexible working the default position suggests that many of the changes that we are now seeing may well have happened even without the pandemic, just at a somewhat slower pace. The last seven months may have been something of a baptism of fire for many, but it will also have highlighted that effective management of remote workers can solve most problems. For the time being at least, and very likely in the future, homeworking is the new normal for “office” workers – it’s time for both employer and employees to make the most of the opportunities that this brings.

Morton Fraser

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