Back in March 2020 (23rd, to be exact), five words spoken by Boris Johnson changed the working world as we know it – “you must stay at home.” Before the pandemic transformed the UK into an almost completely remote workforce, around 87% of people already wanted to work flexibly in the hopes of achieving a better work-life balance, reduced stress and higher job satisfaction. The pandemic’s silver lining granted employees their wish – even though employers remained resistant.
Claire Ward, Founder of SME HR consultancy, The HR Hub, explains:
“Companies who previously were not open to such flexibility have had their eyes opened to what’s possible, and a lot of companies are viewing this as an opportunity to change the way they work.”
And it’s not only businesses that it changes, but ‘business’ too. The CIPD says that improved engagement – one of the benefits of flexible working – can account for 43% more revenue generation and 20% improved performance. Normalising and supporting flexible working could even help to reduce an organisation’s gender pay gap and encourage a more diverse workforce, which, according to McKinsey, could add £150 billion annually to the UK economy by 2025.1 And as around 92% of people want to work flexibly, the business and geographical talent pool will become much wider, too.2
Of course, this work style isn’t without its own set of limitations; creative businesses that use brainstorming sessions find it difficult to find the same flow online, and wider disadvantages include increased loneliness and the financial outlay of supporting flexible working for some companies (minimal in the context of the bigger picture). It’s also likely that remote challenges to creativity won’t be there for long. “We’re already seeing technology that helps to break those creativity barriers, which have likely had their development accelerated over the last few months,” says Ward.
“Generally, the advantages outweigh any disadvantages,” explains Claire McCartney, Senior Resourcing and Inclusion Adviser at the CIPD. “Organisations should see a boost in productivity, a more engaged workforce, a diverse workforce and the ability to attract top talent.”
A four-day working week
Before the pandemic made working from home the centre of attention during 2020, the idea of a four-day week – employees working four days instead of five with no effect on their salary – was gaining in popularity.
Pre-pandemic, Henley Business School penned a white paper titled Four Better or Four Worse, which studied the world of the four-day week and revealed that UK businesses that implemented it saw combined savings of £92 billion.3 Professor James Walker, Director of Research at Henley Business School, did, however, point out a notable concern for business owners.
Professor Walker says:
“While 75% believe a less rigid working structure is key to a harmonious and diverse workplace, for some the benefits are either unnecessary or not substantial enough to warrant implementation. The biggest concern for business owners is customer availability.”
The white paper states that it is customer availability that prevents 82% of businesses from offering a four-day week, believing the need for employee availability to the customer outweighs the need for flexible working. Nearly three quarters of businesses – small businesses in particular – also felt it would be difficult to implement.
A year on
Over 12 months since the Prime Minister’s fateful announcement, many of us are still working from home (in January 2021 the percentage of adults working from home during at least some of the time stood at 45%, the highest since June 20204), although we expect to see more people returning to the office in line with the government’s ‘roadmap’.
Many office workers have liked working from home, and are drawn to new “hybrid” arrangements going forward. Sir Cary Cooper, President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester University, recently told i News:
“The evidence pre-Covid was that people wanted to work more flexibly, and work partly at home, partly from a central office. The findings showed it enhanced job satisfaction, there was higher productivity, and less sickness and absence. But what most people didn’t want is what we’ve been doing in the pandemic: remote work 100 per cent at the time.” 5
Companies are reacting accordingly. In February 2021, global music streaming service Spotify announced its ‘Work From Anywhere’ programme, saying it will let employees choose wherever they want to work, whether that’s from home, in an office or a mix of the two, and will even let them move to different cities and countries. At the beginning of March, BP told their office-based employees staff around the world that they will be expected to work from home for two days per week after the pandemic, in a permanent shift to flexible working.
After the pandemic
While remote working has become the go-to for flexible working, it’s important to remember that a global crisis forced it upon us in the first place. As the future brightens and we emerge from the pandemic, businesses need to reassess their working practices while considering all options. “There are many forms of flexible working, from remote, part-time and term-time working to compressed hours, flexi-time and jobs shares,” says McCartney. “Employers will have to look beyond working from home or otherwise risk creating a two-tier workforce of those who have the opportunity to benefit from remote working and flexibility and those who don’t.”
Ward believes, particularly for SMEs, that core office days may be the way forward, which, as with any alternative that doesn’t require a full-capacity office, brings the bonus of reducing a business’s carbon footprint. Before decisions, there must be dialogue, advises Professor Walker:
“There is an imperative to open up conversations between employers and their employees, to trial and evaluate different forms of flexible employment which best suit the contexts and workplace roles.”
Ironically, shifting an entire sector into a particular form of flexible working may not really be flexible at all.
1,2 Flexible working: the business case, CIPD, November 2018
3 Four Better or Four Worse, Henley Business School, July 2019
4 ONS data, February 2021
5inews.co.uk, Working from home: Hybrid remote working may be the future, March 2021
The opinions expressed by third parties are their own and not necessarily shared by Wellesley Wealth Advisory or St. James’s Place Wealth Management.