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Flexible Working: How Coronavirus cracked the conversation open

woman working with child at home
Ivan Samkov, Pexels

Flexible working has been talked about for years. It isn’t new but it has, in the last couple of years, become a much bigger focus for employees and employers alike. Campaigner, Anna Whitehouse (aka Mother Pukka) sees this as a pivotal moment for organisations to reassess their flexible offerings.

Meeting the demand for flex

Anybody who has worked for an organisation for at least 26 weeks is legally entitled to ask for flexible working. This doesn’t just mean working from home; it covers reducing your hours, working specific shifts or days or even job sharing. 

Yet despite the demand, not everybody has offered it. According to one study, fewer than three in 10 UK employers offered flexible working last year but this recent data shows a year-on-year increase in remote working and it has grown 159% globally since 2005. 

Not until the Coronavirus pandemic forced companies to implement working from home out of necessity, did we suddenly see proof that it is possible. 

“It’s proved that the technology is there to facilitate it,” says Whitehouse, who leads the Flex Appeal campaign to push for flexible working for all. “Globally we’re now working in a more flexible way – overnight we have seen how quickly the tech can be put into place, how quickly teams can work remotely.” 

Of course, not every job can realistically be done from home but Whitehouse has been campaigning for more flexible working for over five years, ever since her own request for it was denied by her then-employer. 

Her mantra has been that flexible working is for people, not just parents. It is a primary driver to make the workspace more inclusive, encourage more diversity and reduce the gender pay-gap. It was highlighted by The Equality and Human Rights Commission as a way to remove barriers and increase opportunities for all, including parents and those with disabilities. 

“Only when flexible working works for everyone will these issues, this glaring black hole of inequality and the gender pay-gap close,” says Whitehouse. 

Flexibility and equality

Her campaign saw an influx of communication after the gender pay-gap reporting came into force three years ago but she notes her frustration that it took a “public shaming” for companies to take it seriously. 

Gemma Rosenblatt, Head of Policy of the Fawcett Society agrees. “The slow pace of change on the gender pay-gap shows the severity of the situation. To tackle the gap, we need to ensure that everyone who needs to work flexibly is enabled to progress in their career.” 

Research conducted by Mason Frank International suggests women in the tech industries find it harder to access flexible working, something they say is in part due to the stigma and a perception that women working flexibly contribute less than someone working full-time in the office. “There’s also a perception that women will ‘drift away’, ie leave the business or try to go part-time after becoming comfortable with flexible working,” says CEO, James Lloyd-Townshend. 

“The reality is that both of these things can happen, but that’s part of a circular problem and a direct by-product of the flexibility stigma. It means women are less likely to make flexible working requests even when feeling a strain on their work-life balance, and are more likely to feel isolated and minimised when they do work flexibly. This inevitably leads to burnout. ” 

The growing demand for flexible working

There have been numerous surveys done on flexible working and it is consistently listed as one of the most desirable benefits of an employment package. 

One survey of working parents by Regus revealed 85% would forgo other benefits, such as gym membership, to have flexible working. 

This study shows that flexible working is the most desired benefit in almost every age group of those polled and always in the top two. 

Looking at the top companies to work for in 2020, according to Glassdoor, most of the commendations are linked to work-life balance and “progressive ways of working and attitudes”. 

And other studies echo these findings with this one showing 80% of job-seekers value a work-from-home option as an additional benefit. 

The statistics are there. Being able to work from home helps to attract and retain good employees. Among the homeworker community, and those who work for themselves, the flexibility to work around family life is the biggest attraction. 

“Only when flexible working works for everyone will these issues, this glaring black hole of inequality and the gender pay-gap close.”

Anna Whitehouse

Flexible working: Not just for parents

While flexible working is widely regarded as a tool to help women maintain a career after having children, it is not just women fighting for it. Closing this gender pay-gap includes issues around paternity leave for new dads. 

“Although men are consistently shown in surveys to be the most dissatisfied with their work-life balance, we hear from lots of dads that flexible working still feels like a distant dream for them,” says Dr Jeremy Davies, of the Fatherhood Institute. “We need flexibility to be the default, rather than something the senior bosses do in secret.” 

Madeleine Cole, MD of Venture Business Ltd, which organises the Flexpo events to promote flexible working opportunities, says it is not just about supporting parents either. “All the while we focus on parents only, we aren’t being truly inclusive and we breed resentment in workplaces. No matter what someone’s life choices are and how they choose to prioritise what’s important in their life, flex should be for all with no questions asked or assumptions made about why.” 

Lloyd-Townshend agrees. “We need to change the culture of employment benefits and move towards supporting the individual, based on their particular circumstances and what could optimise their performance. Only by educating the workplace on these benefits, and measuring and demonstrating the success of remote working, will attitudes towards it change.” 

The pros and cons of flexible working

One of the companies to embrace flexible working and which is supporting the Flex Appeal campaign, is Sir Robert McAlpine. Karen Brookes, Director of People & Infrastructure at the firm says, “There is overwhelming evidence that agile and flexible working helps people to deliver to their full potential by providing better work-life balance and greater job satisfaction. It is a win-win for individuals and the business and society in general.” 

It seems the message has got through already in Finland. Scandinavia is often heralded as leading the world in flexible working and employee wellbeing. In January of this year, Finland’s Working Hours Act came into force to modernise laws around working hours. Working from home falls under the new rules with location no longer crucial to calculating the hours worked. 

However, no business is immune to the challenges that flexible working and homeworking throw up. Katie Beardsworth, Founder and Director of Polyphony Arts has always had a need for flexibility due to the nature of her events-focused work. Having been employed, self-employed and now managing a remote team herself, she understands the concerns from both an employer and employee perspective.

She highlights some of the concerns that many employers have about flexible working as:

• How will I know my employee is working?

• How will I monitor the work?

•Will we miss out on the informal chatting/idea sharing/troubleshooting that comes up in a co-located office environment?

She believes many of the answers are based on general good-working practises with a lot of issues arising from a poor structure that would manifest in the office as well. “Offices allow for lazy management and working practices; badly planned meetings, chats at the water cooler that become informal appraisals, and discussions between colleagues that bump into each other leading to decisions, unwittingly exclude others,” she explains. “People procrastinate whether they are in an office or elsewhere; no one works eight hours a day without needing to change what they have their attention on. An office worker who needs a mental distraction generally needs to hide this, so might browse social media; a flexible or remote worker might go for a walk or a swim and let their ideas develop.”

Cole also highlights fears around inconsistencies across the business i.e. shift workers or field workers versus office workers.  “We have never come across any objections that we can’t over come with a real-life example of another business as case study who had a similar challenge and managed to overcome it,” she says.

Adapting to remote working

Beardsworth sees some of the problems that organisations raise as an “indication of unimaginative management”. She acknowledges that there are potentially more complex issues for the people who work from home. 

“Full flexibility comes an array of issues,” she says, listing some of the problems that she experienced when she began working from home such as having to take responsibility for fixing a computer or a broken chair, the difficulty with switching off because she could work whenever she wanted, and missing the social interaction and office socials.

She implemented several techniques to help her adapt to remote working:

• Investing time and some money in her home office: She has a setup that suits her and which she can close the door on. “With a toddler in the house, I couldn’t stand feeling that I needed to tidy up every time I wanted to start work.”

• Found a community: “I’m in various networking groups on social media which are useful for tips and problems. I also have a team working for me now, which does present opportunities for co-working, and even Christmas parties!”

• Switching off: “I turn my work emails and social media off when I’m not working.”

• Found the working pattern that works best: “This is, and perhaps always will be, a work in progress, but I now know things about my working day that really help – I am very productive in the morning and late afternoon, and have a slump after lunch. This allows me to feel better about doing some exercise or some housework during that time, as I now know I wouldn’t be productive anyway.”

Flexibility and responsibility

This ability to have more control and, to some point, set your own agenda is one of the key factors in feeling trusted and improving your sense of wellbeing. “If agile and flexible working can have a beneficial impact on mental health, and we believe it can, then we are fully committed to taking the time to investigate agile and flexible working and the various ways in which it can make a difference,” says Brookes. Sir Robert McAlpine have been particularly keen to explore it in the construction industry, which she says has “an alarming rate of male suicides.”

“Ultimately, our vision is to be able to advertise every job as flexible from day one,” says Brookes. “Internally, supporting the Flex Appeal campaign creates an environment where our people are comfortable to start conversations on the topic. Hopefully, with collaboration, we will define suitable solutions for the future.”

The hope for all those who advocate for flexible working is that one of the positive impacts of Coronavirus is  that it will expedite the adoption of work-from-home policies on a much larger scale.

“I think when this comes to an end, a lot of people will realise things have shifted but it wasn’t necessarily flexible working in the most effective way,” says Whitehouse. “It’s not really a fair landscape for challenging whether it works or not.”

But with millions having had to work from home across the globe, it has certainly opened the gates for a much bigger conversation around it.

Flexible Working advocate, Anna Whitehouse in The Flex issue of The Homeworker magazine.
Flex Appeal article in The Homeworker magazine

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The Homeworker
The Homeworker

Dedicated to helping you thrive when you work from home, The Homeworker publishes articles that are designed to keep you healthy, happy, and more productive in work and life.


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