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GTP21: Managing flexible working post-pandemic

Work Inclusivity Research Centre, University of Birmingham

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2021 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2021 this involves 8 free online workshops taking place throughout March, and a virtual Growth Through People conference on 30th March. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts, videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Sponsors – Aston University, BMet College and the University of Birmingham’s Work Inclusivity Research Centre - all workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

The rapid expansion of remote working at home in response to the global pandemic, peaking at around two-in-five workers in mid-2020, has prompted considerable debate regarding the future landscape of work, as many organisations begin to rethink the workplace and explore potential longer-term adoption of more flexible approaches to work.

These debates have arisen in the context that the short-term move to working at home has reflected anything but flexibility, with Government guidelines across many nations requiring work from home wherever it is possible on grounds of public health. It should also be acknowledged that working at home has been a privilege most widely available in managerial, professional and associate professional occupations, leaving some of those unable to work at home subject to furlough, redundancy or continuing to journey to a workplace during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, where it has been applied many organisations and workers have embraced the short-term move to remote working at home. Organisations have reported increases in productivity, and despite the enforced nature of the expansion of remote working, the majority of workers do show a preference to continue to work at home at least some of the time. These experiences have prompted planned closure of workplaces and statements around the desire for ‘flexibility’ and agile working to define the future of work.

As social distancing measures are eased and following the overall positive experiences of the last year, many organisations will be faced with a dilemma; do they ask their workforce (or a portion of it) to continue to work at home all of the time, put in place a hybrid home-workplace arrangement, or ask their workforce to return to a co-located workplace-based arrangement (perhaps with occasional or informal homeworking opportunities)? Much will depend on the nature of the organisation, the demands of the sector in which they operate, and the needs and preferences of their workers.

If organisations ask their workforce to return to previous routines in a co-located workplace, then to a large degree this will simply result in a return to ‘business as usual’, with most organisations and workers understanding the relative trade-offs involved in this model of work. There could well be pressure for this model to become more flexible, though, as many workers will likely request flexible arrangements including occasional homeworking where experiences have been positive. Where this path is chosen it returns the focus to the effectiveness of legislation governing formal flexible working arrangements including allowance decisions made by managers.

Turning to remote working at home, existing evidence is useful as it tells us that working at home offers a range of potential benefits. Working at home is associated with higher levels of productivity and job/leisure satisfaction. It allows us to avoid the regular commute, often cited as one of the least appreciated daily activities, and this of course has wider societal benefits in regards to reductions in the environmental impacts of transport. Working at home can also increase inclusivity, as it offers enhanced accessibility for workers who may find employment in standard workplace environments difficult e.g. due to caring responsibilities or disability. Organisations, meanwhile, can additionally benefit from cost reduction, as they are able to reduce the size of, or close, workplaces.

Well documented challenges to successful adoption of remote working at home include difficulties in separating home and work (both space and time), professional (i.e. lack of visibility to management) and social isolation, lack of adequate resources i.e. equipment/software, lack of effective health and safety including an ergonomic workspace (and potential shifting of resource costs from employer to employee), loss of benefits associated with informal knowledge sharing and idea development (e.g. water cooler chat), and concerns around misuse of company time leading to micromanagement and excessive monitoring. A mass move to remote working also has the potential to have wider societal implications through displacing a certain portion of the labour market as certain jobs in hospitality in urban centres, for example, could become obsolete.

Should organisations choose to adopt a wholly remote working at home approach, they have the potential to realise a number of the benefits outlined above, but will also certainly face a number of the documented challenges. Of particular concern are those around building and maintaining relationships, something that is essential if remote teams are to be effective and productive, but existing evidence tells us is problematic. Referring to permanent remote working at home as ‘flexible’ could also be somewhat of a misnomer, if workers are subject to required, or norms around, hours of work e.g. a 9-5 working day. In this case the location is fixed, as are the working hours. Where organisations require certain dress and use software to monitor activity these factors also impart a more fixed working arrangement. But remote working at home can be flexible, and offers the greatest benefits where organisations empower workers and provide autonomy in their jobs.  

While the workers of focus here can work at home in principle, their household situation, well-being or preferences may mean that working at home is not the most effective model. In many cases combining working at home with some time at a workplace/space will therefore be more appropriate. A flexible model offering workers a combination of ‘at home’ and ‘in workplace’ routines could enable workers and the organisation to realise many of the benefits, but encounter fewer of the difficulties, of a wholly work at home model, including retaining knowledge and idea sharing and other relational benefits derived from co-location.  

To be truly flexible a hybrid model could be more costly for organisations than a wholly work from home approach, as they need to provide adequate resources to enable work at home and offer a workspace in a co-located workplace. Existing evidence suggests an agile or flexible workplace design should accommodate around seven in ten workers at any one time. This model offers the potential for the organisation to reduce space, but requires careful monitoring and management to ensure that: (1) onsite and at home workers can effectively co-ordinate and work in teams, (2) when workers want/need to be onsite they have a space to work, and (3) there is no penalty (e.g. to career development) for those who more often want/need to work at home.

In either the work at home or hybrid home-workplace scenario, there are substantial bodies of existing and emerging research that can inform organisational strategy and aid effective management of workers engaged in location-based flexible working. Truly embracing flexibility requires job design to be revisited in many cases, so that the focus is on deliverables and outputs rather than specific timing of work. Time spent working at home can enable the working day to be moulded for the dual benefit of worker and employer. However, this has to be carefully managed to ensure that workers are available when needed, but also are able to realise a separation and balance between home and work. This is necessary to avoid overwork and burnout among employees, and also to protect the interests of the organisation. Achieving the most effective outcome requires the co-creation, by organisation and workers, of an optimal and adaptable flexible working design.

Finally, the move to greater use of remote working at home suggests that the conversation is perhaps moving on somewhat for a substantial body of workers from the previous focus on the provision of formal flexible working arrangements to become one of rethinking job design and workplace to provide a truly flexible approach to work that benefits workers, their organisations and society.

This article has been produced for the Birmingham Chamber event ‘Managing Flexible Working Post-Pandemic’ forming part of the 2021 Growth Through People campaign, which will be held at 8am on Tuesday 2 March 2021. You can register for the event at the event page, which also includes joining instructions. The article has also been informed by new research reported in the Handbook of Research on Remote Work and Worker Well-Being in the Post-COVID-19 Era.

Dr Daniel Wheatley
Work Inclusivity Research Centre, University of Birmingham