Flexible working is not flexible

10th January 2021

Flexible working requires agile minds, policies and resources.

Are businesses ready to be truly flexible, or just paying lip service?

One thing our new research has shown, published in our Future Workspaces report, is that there is no one-size-fits-all. The exceptional circumstances of 2020 led to a government directive to “work from home if you can”, which, in a single stroke, accelerated take-up of a provision in law regarding flexible working, which had been in place since 2002.

These emergency measures were widely embraced. We shared a common interest in keeping ourselves and our families safe by staying at home, and endeavouring to keep the wheels turning on our businesses, to protect jobs.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always gone smoothly. Now, as we plan for a future free from enforced lockdowns, businesses must re-assess the freedoms and responsibilities that form part of the ‘bond’ between employer and employee. Ill-defined policies and out- dated office cultures may contribute to workplace tensions, where the implementation of flexible working policies appear to be inconsistent. Employees may reasonably think that they’ve proven they can work from home effectively during Covid, so why would an employer deny a request to make this arrangement permanent?

Meanwhile, employers wrestling with the challenge of increasing productivity as they seek to regain ground lost to the economic impacts of 2020, may want to bring people back to the office, to re-group and re- focus.

So, how can businesses steer through this impasse?

First, it’s helpful to review and refresh remote-working policies to ensure they are explicit, with clear boundaries, taking account of Covid-related changes in work patterns. Flexible working is not just about location, but the number of hours worked or the patterns of when those hours are delivered. Can a fixed rota of days for remote working, really be considered flexible?

Next, have management skills and methods of measuring productivity kept pace with the rapid switch towards remote working? Supporting the development of strong management skills throughout the organisation can have a transformational effect on both productivity and wellbeing.

Finally, while clear policies for flexible working are imperative, there is also a cultural aspect. The ‘fear of letting go’ can lead to poor decisions by employers, bad feeling and, in the most severe cases, employment tribunals where the employee feels their request has been unfairly denied. Strong cultural values and a clear vision, understood and shared by all, helps to strengthen the bond between employers and employees, beyond contractual obligations.

But, as a law firm, we would be remiss if we didn’t stress the importance of contractual obligations. The most difficult cases are often the ones which stem from a lack of policy, or a written agreement with too many loopholes. If you need help reworking your documentation for 2021, we’re here to help.

We would also like to give you access to the full 95-page Future Workspaces report, of which flexible working is one of many topics discussed and debated. Download your free copy here.