Flexible working – is it here to stay when the pandemic is over?

As I write this, we can all see the end of lockdown approaching. It has been a strange experience, to say the least, and for many people, it meant working from home for the first time. Here at SSLPost, we were lucky to be a little more prepared than most for remote working because we instituted a virtual office environment some years ago. Over time, we have learned a few things about how to work from home (WFH), and I covered some of them in our recent blog ‘The Kitchen Floor is lava’, but that got me wondering how much WFH will stick when lockdown lifts. Some heavyweight names, including Google, British Airways and Airbnb, have announced extensions of the work remote policy. There must be a joke in there somewhere about the irony of Airbnb and BA working from home, but it does indicate that not everyone will be automatically heading back to the traditional working world. So, where does that leave us with reopening the workplace?

Firstly, it is probably worth remembering that it may well be the case that many companies have become more accepting of the idea of working remotely. The concerns over a drop in productivity seem, for the most part at least, to have been a damp squib, and in many cases, it actually increased. The support mechanisms from the HR departments and management chains are now in place, and refining them to make them a permanent fixture should be easy enough to do. Add to that the potential cost reductions for employees and employers, and WFH start to become a very tempting option.

WFH is, once you are used to it, actually much easier than commuting into the office every day. No drive to work, no rush hour, no need to get up earlier, and so on, all mean there should be more time for the employee without impacting the workday. Convenience, however, can lead to a concern about unintentionally overworked employees. What can happen is that the lack of workspace-based hours and the natural desire to prove you are being just as productive from home combine to become a catalyst for overworking. Overworking, as we all know, leads to a range of problems, including burn out and stress. Employers and workforces really need to work together to combat this. In fact, a whole new approach to employee wellbeing is needed for a remote team.

Another question is one of professional behaviour and environment. We talked about the importance of setting up a pseudo workplace in our previous blog. That said, you are ‘at home’, and that often comes with a range of other issues. The Zoom call is probably the best example of how home life intrudes into the workplace. Businesses adopting a long-term WFH policy will either need to set strict guidelines or accept that the cat, dog, child, partner and Amazon delivery person are going to make the occasional appearance. Internally this may well be acceptable to some extent, but externally is a different matter. I doubt the appearance of your toddler asking for a sandwich would be as acceptable to clients as it is to work colleagues!

When it comes to the video workplace, I suggest you make it a part of your working world rather than something you log in to. What I mean by that is, take the approach that you could always suddenly be on camera. Dress appropriately, keep your work area tidy and uncluttered, make sure your appearance is always ready to go and so on. In fact, I would go one further and suggest you treat your home productive space as if you were going to a traditional workspace. Get there on time and leave on time. Dress as if you were meeting work colleagues. Take lunch and coffee breaks and close down at the end of the day.

One very likely scenario is the multi-site approach to WFH. The advantages of the workplace cannot simply be forgotten, and there is a lot to be said for face-to-face contact. Undoubtedly, the home is a far more appropriate environment for work functions with a fixed outcome and clear milestones. Creative and collaborative work is still going to be much easier and productive in the workplace. I suppose the concern here will be the need to adapt from one environment to the other. Careful management should ease this transfer, and if we have learned one thing during lockdown, it is that we are all far more adaptable than we thought.

In the end, though, whether the workplace returns if WFH is an option is likely to be heavily influenced by the human factor. Working from home can be difficult, and some people are simply not cut out for it. Others thrive when remote from the workplace. The likelihood, or at least as I see it, is that the option for WFH will become commonplace in new working contracts. We could well see it not just being an option but becoming an expectation of new employees and, if they want the best teams, employers may well need to offer it to attract great candidates.

Remote working looks as if it is here to stay, and if that is the case, then we all need to find a productive way to work from home that still allows a good work-life balance.