Over the last six months, the Coronavirus pandemic has seen millions of workers around the globe forced to work from their kitchens and spare rooms. Many have found themselves working more flexibly in terms of days and hours as a result of having to balance homeschooling. Even now, with governments easing restrictions, we have still not reached a point where we can say it is “business as usual”. Indeed, the future of work looks flexible.
Despite an increasing trend in recent years, before the pandemic turned life upside down, only 5% of the UK workforce worked from home. However, the current flexibility is not representative of truly flexible working, as many workers are still balancing homeschooling or supporting vulnerable family members.
Nevertheless, now is the time for businesses to review their working practices, in light of the many benefits home working offers, both for employees and employers. Research has provided evidence that working flexibility can help to support inclusion, reduce the gender pay gap, attract and retain talent, increase productivity and improve employee wellbeing and mental health.
Early signs suggest that many employees wish to continue flexible working when the current crisis has passed. Many different types of flexible working can be considered, including working from home, reduced hours, job shares, flexible hours or self-rostering. It can be formal, as part of a contract of employment, or informal, an agreement between you and your boss.
UK Employment Law has a set of minimum standard when it comes to flexible working, which employers much comply with when reviewing and agreeing to flexible working arrangements.
Current legislation states that any employee with more than 26 weeks of continuous service, has the right to apply for flexible working. An employer is obligated to review the employee’s request in a judicious manner and within a reasonable timeframe. A request can only be declined if there would be a detrimental impact on quality, performance or ability to meet customer demand, or if the reorganisation of responsibilities among other employees proves impossible.
ACAS has an employer guide which sets out the process for dealing with and responding to a request for flexible working, which you can read here: https://www.acas.org.uk/acas-code-of-practice-on-flexible-working-requests.
In the short time, it is likely that employees with continue to be based from home. Therefore, businesses and management must ensure that employees are treated consistently and that effective communications channels are in place to provide support, guidance and training remotely.
Longer-term, employees have demonstrated that it is possible to work effectively from using, making full use of today’s technology to support them to do so. Personal benefits of reduced commuting time and an improved work-life balance also suggest that there will be an increase in the demand for flexible working.
For business who are prepared to see this increase in demand as an opportunity, some things need to be considered; culture, policy and training.
Company culture can sometimes be resistant to change, and building a culture of flexibility for the long term is a journey. However, some perceived barriers have been challenged in recent months, prompting businesses to consider how they can create a culture where continued flexible working can thrive. Trust is probably one of the most essential factors. The other is that performance should be judged on the outcome and not presence or availability. Flexible working opportunities should be made available for all levels of the employee workforce, not just the privileged few.
Any change of approach to flexible working will require a change to company policy. Currently, employment law only allows employees to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. This may discourage future new talent from applying for a role within your business. Therefore consideration should be given to advertising all positions as open to flexible working and permitting flexible working requests from “day one”.
Management should be given training on the business and employee benefits to flexible working, as well as how to manage flexible workers effectively.
Flexible working will be a key decision point for many HR professionals in the months to come. Productivity, employee engagement and retention, talent acquisition and sustainability will all be important factors to consider when deciding what the new normal looks like for your business.
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