We’re smack back in the middle of one of the strangest periods of recent history — and it could have a permanent impact on how we work. When the pandemic hit in March, those who could were told to work from home, and while this was something we easily slipped into, it may not be as simple to return to the office.
While the government has eased back its advice on returning to offices from August 1, a study by Bupa from last month found that 65 per cent of Brits are anxious about returning to the workplaces, with one in seven Londoners ‘stressed’ about their return.
A separate study from Instant Offices found that 73 per cent of employers consider working from home to be the ‘new norm’ while 65 per cent of UK workers say they are more productive at home compared to their regular offices.
With office workers needed to get the economy back on track, but employees hesitant to go back, could a flexible working compromise be the way forward?
“Post lockdown, there are likely to be big, permanent changes to our traditional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday in the office. The world of work has been changing for a while, and the long-lasting impact of COVID is only likely to accelerate these changes,” London-based Career Coach & Consultant Hannah Salton tells the Standard.
“Employees have been wanting more flexibility for a long time — whether this is to do with childcare, other caring responsibilities, or simply to gain a better work-life balance. Historically, employers haven’t been adapting as fast as employees need them to, and hopefully a lot of that will change now. If employers aren’t flexible, they risk missing out on top talent that is forced out of the workforce when they are unable to accommodate rigid and traditional working patterns.”
We only need to look to Europe to see how beneficial flexible working can be. Studies have shown that while workers in the UK put in longer hours than other European countries, we are well behind in our productivity rate.
"The world of work has been changing for a while, and the long-lasting impact of COVID is only likely to accelerate these changes."
Hannah Salton, Career Coach & Consultant
Finland, in particular, has been leading the flexible working charge for over two decades. Its Working Hours Act that was passed in 1996 gives employees the rights to adjust their typical daily hours by starting or finishing up to three hours earlier or later. A new act was introduced in Finland at the beginning of this year that meant most full-time employees could decide when and where they would work for at least half of their working hours.
Similarly, 80 per cent of German businesses have a flexible working policy while this drops to 68 per cent in the UK.
Debbie Lovewell-Tuck, Editor of Employee Benefits, says that UK employees ‘shouldn’t necessarily expect’ to have more flexibility as we ease out of lockdown.
Lovewell-Tuck adds: “Numerous pieces of research have shown that both employers and employees believe flexible working will continue to some extent. Figures from Lansons and Optimum Research, for example, showed that approximately three-quarters of working adults believe flexible working will continue post-pandemic, with a third predicting that it will become the norm.
“Employees may well expect that, if they have proved that working from home and/or greater flexibility around hours can work during lockdown, they will be able to continue with this flexibility in the longer term. Overall, employees shouldn’t necessarily expect to have more flexibility, although many may want to do so.”
While Career Change Coach Alice Stapleton thinks the UK will continue to work a five-day week, ‘how much of that is spent in the office remains to be seen’.
“I find it hard to imagine that we’ll return to working in the office full-time. More and more, I think offices will now be used for meetings and collaborative projects only,” Stapleton says.
“If the last four months have shown us anything, it’s that a large majority of roles can be done from home, just as effectively as in the office. The lack of childcare has also shown us that flexible working is most definitely a viable option in a lot of cases, too. I therefore find it hard to imagine a company now not allowing more flexibility when it comes to WFH and working hours. Hopefully, the majority of managers and leaders now realise that employees can be trusted to get their work done, whenever and wherever they are.”
Is a four-day working week the way of the future?
In May, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, cited a four day working week as a way to ‘rebuild’ New Zealand after the effects of the pandemic.
“I hear lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day workweek. Ultimately that really sits between employers and employees. But as I’ve said there’s just so much we’ve learnt about Covid and that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that,” Ardern said at the time. “I’d really encourage people to think about that if you’re an employer and in a position to do so. To think about if that’s something that would work for your workplace because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”
Joe Ryle, a former Labour Party press officer, is now a campaigner for 4 Day Week which is encouraging the government to consider a four-day week as it ‘will benefit our society, our economy, our environment and our democracy’. Ideally, the outcome would result in a four-day, 30-hour working week with no reduction in pay.
“Since the 1980’s, working hours in the UK have basically not reduced at all and at the same time, the UK works the longest hours out of anyone in the EU while also being one of the least productive countries,” Ryle explains.
“I would argue that it’s a bit overdue actually, the time has come for a four-day week. We should be working towards having a happier, healthier work-life balance.”
Salton agrees, adding that there are ‘numerous benefits’ to working a four-day week.
“It can result in employees being more engaged, productive and efficient when they are working. It may also mean they are able to manage their work-life balance better, and be more present for any caring or parenting commitments, as well as any hobbies or social activities,” Salton continues.
“For the employer, it may mean higher staff retention rates as loyal employees are less likely to leave. It may also mean employers can afford to hire someone more senior and with more expertise, if they are only paying their wages for four days of the working week.”
Ryle cites Microsoft in Japan, which moved to a four-day week last August and found that company productivity was boosted by 40 per cent.
“I think millions of people are already enjoying working more flexible hours, and I think that presents an opportunity. People are saying, ‘well actually I’d like to make this work-life balance more permanent’,” Ryle continues. “That’s what we’re finding, it’s happening from the bottom-up through businesses and we’re trying to campaign to the government to look at doing it from the top down as well.”
The 4 Day Week team is already in talks with the government about different ways to implement it.
“There’s an opportunity now to introduce something like the furlough scheme but a shorter working scheme that would enable people to have a four day week, and so we’re campaigning to the government for permission to explore that,” Ryle adds.
“We had recent polling which showed that more than two-thirds of the public support a four day week — as well as 57 per cent of conservative voters so people across a political spectrum are in support of it. When we broke down that poll, it showed that across all parts of the country and across all age groups, it was very very popular, so I definitely think it’s building momentum.”
Flexible working is set to become more common
While we’re yet to see what impact a four day week could have, more and more companies are jumping on the flexible working structure. In May, tech giant Twitter announced that its employees would be given the option to work from home ‘forever’ as the past few months has proven it can ‘make it work’. Google swiftly followed suit, announcing that all employees can work from home until 'at least' summer 2021 'to give employees the ability to plan ahead'.
“I believe flexible working needs to be the future,” Salton says. “Employers are missing out on recruiting and retaining top talent when they don’t allow employees some degree of flexible working. This isn’t about employers saying yes to every single request, but it’s about recognising that technology grants us the opportunity to work more flexibly now, and companies that don’t take advantage of this are missing out, and will get left behind as other companies do start to flex their working environment.
“It’s also important to note that flexible working doesn’t just mean working from home, and actually some employees prefer not to work at home. Flexible working can mean working the same amount of hours into a compressed working week, it can mean reduced hours – for example a four day week, it can mean starting and finishing an hour early, or it could mean something else entirely.”
Stapleton adds: “I think, as a society, we really value our freedom and autonomy, which makes flexible working such an attractive way of working. We feel in control of our own workload, empowered by the trust in us to responsibly meet deadlines by managing our own time around our other life priorities, as needed.”
There’s economic value to flexible working too, for organisations - the more people working from home means smaller office spaces and thus less rent.
“They may need to invest more in technology that keeps their network and employees connected and effective, but, this investment will be returned through the tendency of us all to work longer hours when we’re at home. As individuals, we could save a fair amount of money, and time, by cutting down, or out, our commuting hours,” Stapleton adds.
“We may find that, economically, cities become less expensive to live in, as there may be less need to be close to our offices, if we’re working from home more and more.”
While working from home certainly appeals to the masses, studies have shown that we are missing out on the social aspects offered by working from an office. A survey done by the Standard found that 80 per cent of respondents said they missed interacting with colleagues the most. Zoom pub quizzes just aren’t the same.
“Working from an office can have a social and emotional value, enabling staff to interact and support one another,” Lovewell-Tuck says. “It is now so easy to keep in touch virtually, however, sometimes there is no substitute for personal interaction, even if this is just ‘watercooler chat’. Some people naturally prefer to work in an office environment due to the opportunities for social interaction.”
A major beneficiary of new attitudes towards flexible working could be working parents. As employees have proved over the last four months, it is absolutely possible to work from home and Salton says this has removed perceived barriers from organisations that ‘previously felt it wasn’t possible’.
Lovewell-Tuck adds: “Allowing greater flexibility to parents and mothers returning from maternity or parental leave can make a real difference to the employee. For some people, having greater flexibility may mean the difference between deciding to return to a company or not.
“This also has advantages for employers. Not only are they likely to retain more employees post leave, but those returning may also be more productive, loyal and engaged with the business if they are given the flexibility to balance their work around their home lives. This flexibility shouldn’t just be limited to mothers. For some families, it may make more sense for fathers or partners to work more flexibly.”
"Companies will now struggle with most arguments against flexible working."
Alice Stapleton, Career Change Coach
The likeliness of this happening, Lovewell-Tuck continues, ‘very much depends on the organisation’ and some employers will be a lot more likely to do it than others.
“I’d love to see more organisations and employees working together to come to an arrangement that works well for both parties,” Stapleton says. “Parenting can be so unpredictable, with so many variables and logistics to consider. Often, the employee is incredibly motivated to return to work and succeed in their role, but flexibility from the organisation is key to facilitating this success. School hours are not currently aligned to the traditional 9 to 5 working day, so there’s got to be some wiggle room in the future to allow employees the opportunity to still succeed in their roles.
“Companies will now struggle with most arguments against flexible working, when the last four months have proven that, for most, it’s an incredibly viable and effective approach.”
How to negotiate flexible working in the future
Companies of a more traditional nature could be stringent in wanting employees back in the office — but if you want to have a more flexible schedule, you can negotiate this with your employer.
“Ensure you are speaking to the right person about your requirements. Try and enter into an open dialogue, and avoid getting defensive or aggressive,” Salton advises. “Be clear on the value you bring to the organisation, how you are able to effectively do your job with the flexibility you require, and explain you’d like to have a discussion around it. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and be open to a longer dialogue about it.”
Lovewell-Tuck says the first step is to speak to your line manager or HR department to see if you can agree on a temporary change.
“This may be sufficient if the requested change is on a temporary short-term basis to allow for a period of adjustment post-pandemic, although employers are under no obligation to agree to such changes,” Lovewell-Tuck adds.
“Alternatively, employees can submit a flexible working request, detailing the change they would like to make to their working arrangement, and any benefits that the change would have to the business, their work or their colleagues. An organisation will then set up a meeting to discuss the request before making a decision. A final decision must be made within three months of the request being made.”
For some, going back to the office may just be something they are not comfortable with at the moment, given the ongoing pandemic, and if this is the case, Stapleton advises discussing your options with your line manager to come to an agreement you’re both happy with.
“As more information about returning to the office emerges, many employees are feeling confused about their rights, and this confusion may well continue,” Salton adds. “Stay up to date with the latest government advice, and explain your concerns and preferences to your employer. Try and avoid a standoff, and instead enter constructive, open discussion."