Many organisations are reviewing their stance on flexible and hybrid working as pandemic restrictions slowly ease. But while complex theories abound about the best approaches and policies, Sarah Jackson has discovered it’s really all about conversations and common sense.
As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, increased flexible working looks set to stay. While many employers are embracing this change, many are still hesitant about letting flexibility loose on their employees in case they take advantage and the business suffers.
Late last year I helped Scottish social business Flexibility Works with a research project commissioned by the Scottish Government, which looked at how businesses used flexible working to manage during the pandemic.
As part of this study, focus groups were held with workers who in the main had not been working flexibly before the first lockdown.
They were people in “ordinary” jobs, and in “ordinary” organisations, not employed by the kinds of corporates whose response to the pandemic and embrace of hybrid working has dominated media coverage. Some had children, some did not. Only a handful had staff management responsibility.
Asking the right questions
The researchers asked the focus groups what they knew about flexible working, who they thought it was for, and why employers might want to offer it. The groups also discussed problems that might arise for the employer, and talked about their own experiences with lockdown flexibility and their hopes for the future.
I was surprised by how pragmatic they were, how much common sense they applied. I have heard so many managers express worry about their staff working flexibly.
These workers seemed to belie that fear, with their comments a striking reminder that employers should be able to trust their employees, and work together with them to find solutions to our new situation.
It was remarkable that, although they were not familiar with the language around flexible working, they were familiar with the concept and able to articulate its benefits both to the employee and to the employer.
Balance and control
For themselves, they spoke about balance and control. This was common whether or not they had children. A young office worker commented: “Before lockdown I worked five days a week in the office, now I work from home on a Wednesday. I absolutely cherish that one day at home … it helps out … financially with travel costs and it’s just a bit more of a work-life balance.”
A father, working in landscaping, explained that working from home was not possible, but that, “I like the way things are starting to work for me now, flexible, like spending more time with my kids, picking and choosing my jobs, that’s really exciting for me moving forward. It’s control over my full life basically.”
For their employers, they pointed to benefits around being an employer of choice, about retention, staff wellbeing and performance, reduced absenteeism, and savings in travel and office space. They were very practical.
They also gave examples of when flexibility could not work (from a surgeon in an operating theatre to someone working in a take-away lunch joint – they pointed out to some laughter that it would be no good to turn up to that job at 4pm). They talked about having to ensure targets were met.
One of the younger workers talked about flexible working being ‘just so much more modern, it’s more appealing’.
They were also realistic about their own roles and what was possible in them. Nobody was looking for massive change. Those who were working from home because of the pandemic generally hoped to be able to keep a couple of days a week at home, both for the extra time it gave for family life and the reduced costs of travel.
Benefits for both sides
They added that for flexibility to work, there had to be trust between managers and workers and within teams, fairness and a two-way responsibility. “It’s got to work for both sides you know, it’s not just to benefit the employee.”
Everyone agreed that flexible working should be for all, not just for parents. There was some frustration that managers seemed not to understand this.
One said: “It’s for everyone to be honest. However, my employer has pretty much just geared it towards mums and if you’re not a mum, you don’t get it.”
Several of the mothers, on the other hand, acknowledged they had taken a career hit by choosing to work flexibly. One said: “I find there are a lot of negatives … you miss so many things and you’re never brought up to speed properly. In promotion you’re overlooked.”
One of the younger workers talked about flexible working being “just so much more modern, it’s more appealing”.
A valued experience
Those workers expressed particular frustration that their workplaces were so controlling and inflexible. Watching this group was like looking through a window into a world far removed from management textbooks.
These young, low-paid workers had the least power in the workplace and before the first lockdown had been the least likely to have any form of flexible working. Now they had experienced flexibility for themselves, they valued it, and they definitely wanted it to continue. But they were frustrated and sceptical about their employers’ willingness or their managers’ ability to deliver.
Everyone wanted to retain elements of the flexibility that lockdown had brought, because of the control and balance they had gained.
It has left me thinking, as we move into hybrid working, that managers and team leaders might be able to rely on the common sense of their people. They understand what is needed for their own jobs and what is needed from others for flexibility to work. And they do want it to work.