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The impact of coronavirus: pros, cons and next steps for flexible workplaces

As coronavirus increases the take-up of remote and flexible working, we explore the opportunities and risks, and explain how to build the more positive aspects into long-term strategies.

By Claire Campbell, Consultancy Director, Timewise

Impact of coronavirus

One of the most visible examples of the impact of coronavirus on the workplace is the growth of remote working. And as we’re flexible working specialists, you’d imagine we’d be delighted. But while it’s great to see companies adapting to the need to work together while apart, it’s time to take stock of where we are – and where we might end up. Are all the changes we’re seeing for the better – and will they last?

It’s certainly true that there are a number of positives coming out of the crisis. On a societal level, as an organisation who has been working to support work-life balance for nursing staff, we feel the outpouring of appreciation for NHS employees is long overdue. And we sincerely hope that their value, and that of other frontline workers such as teachers, retail staff, government employees and carers, who are putting themselves at risk for all our sakes, continues to be respected and rewarded once the crisis is over.

Opportunities that should lead to change

Additionally, on a practical level, this enforced experiment in remote working has overturned some long-held objections to remote working, creating real opportunities to change the narrative:

  • Many professions which were previously considered unsuited to remote working are now learning what’s possible through goodwill and innovation. For example, whole teams of lawyers are working from home, and exploring new ways of working, such as sending and approving documents electronically. And some schools are streaming virtual lessons through platforms like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams.
  • Employers are discovering that prioritising outputs rather than inputs doesn’t mean less is achieved. This will hopefully lead to a widespread understanding that it doesn’t matter when or where people work, as long as they get the job done
  • Leaders and managers are juggling their work with their families, and discovering, like Professor Robert Kelly, that video calls sometimes get interrupted (and that it isn’t the end of the world). Increased awareness of the balancing act some employees permanently manage can only be a good thing.

It’s our hope that, as a result, the reasons traditionally given for not allowing remote working just won’t wash. And so the debate can move on from whether it should be used to how to make it work – and the focus onto practical solutions such as job design and culture change.

Risks that we all need to work to avoid

However, there are also some ways in which the impact of coronavirus is more negative. For example:

  • Working mums are likely to be taking on more of the home schooling, childcare and elder care, even when both parents are working from home. While this may be understandable in families where the male parent has a more high-powered job, it is important that the coronavirus doesn’t reinforce outdated stereotypes of domestic responsibility being ‘women’s work’.
  • There is also anecdotal evidence of working mums and carers being prioritised for furlough or reduced hours. This may be because employers are trying to do the right thing by offering these options to people they believe need it most. But there is a clear potential impact on the value, perception and salaries of these employees.
  • Both of these issues may in turn have a negative impact on the gender pay gap. It’s understandable that the government has postponed the requirement for gender pay gap reporting, but it’s a real step backwards if Covid-19 has an impact on our hard-fought gender equality at work.
  • Workload creep has always been as issue for remote workers, who don’t have a fixed end point to their working day. But right now, with people working at odd times of the day to balance their other responsibilities, and the threat of redundancy looming, it’s harder than ever to switch off. Excessive hours shouldn’t be normalised by widespread remote working; as Helena Morrissey recently noted, “We are in danger that instead of learning to work from home, we will end up learning to live at work.”

Work should start now for a more flexible future workplace

And of course, we also need to beware the assumption that this is a temporary response to Covid-19, and that everything will go back to normal once the restrictions are lifted. Despite the pitfalls outlined above, I very much hope that isn’t the case.

Indeed, I’d argue that there is no normal to go back to. I believe that some of the more positive experiences caused by the impact of the coronavirus – avoiding the commute, spending more time with family and being able to work at times that suit us – will encourage employees to push for greater flexible working. And forward-looking employers will need to incorporate it as part of their offer.

If that’s the case, what should employers do to set the right tone, right now? Here are three good ways to start:

  1. Take the time to speak to each of your employees about their long-term working pattern preferences, and support them to find one that works with their other commitments. Employees talk to us about ‘needing permission’ to work flexibly; now is a key time to give it to them. Make sure any discussions about caring commitments are gender inclusive.

  2. Evaluate the impact of the current situation on your business and your people. Find out where the glitches are, and work out how to improve them. Ask your employees what they have learned from the current circumstances, and encourage them to share their successes and challenges with others; there is great power in storytelling. Review and improve.

  3. Start work now on the culture you want to have in place when the restrictions are lifted. What policies, plans and support would you need to provide to improve your employees’ work-life balance for good?

Here at Timewise, we’re already exploring the best way to turn the impact of coronavirus into a positive force for change. We’re creating a programme of webinars, training sessions, toolkits and advice for employers, with two core aims:

  • Firstly, to help employers support their employees and their business during this unusual time.
  • And secondly, to help them start designing sustainable, flexible-friendly culture and strategies that will allow them to build on what they’ve learned once the virus has passed.

It’s a challenging time right now; no question. But it’s also an opportunity to change workplaces for the better, for good. If you’d like to know more about the programme we’re building, or need support with any of the issues I’ve noted here, do please get in touch.

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