It has been a year since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Millions of people have lived through lockdowns. Many have lost jobs, incomes and had their industries shut down almost completely. Huge numbers of people have made the sudden transition to home-working. We don’t yet know when things will return to normal, and what normal will look like after the crisis.
Despite the obvious challenges of working from home during a pandemic, from childcare to setting up a bedroom desk in a flatshare, research suggests many people want to continue remote working in the future.
A survey of 1,000 people by Eskenzi PR and OnePoll found that 91% of the general working population would like to continue to work from home, whereas only 9% would want to work in the office full-time. Hybrid working is also set to be a popular choice too, with over a third of people wanting to work from home for half of the week.
Although the pandemic has normalised remote working, UK workers still face challenges when it comes to requesting flexible working. At present, the law states that employees can only request to work flexibly after 26 weeks of employment, with a limit of one request per 12-months. In particular, research suggests those in lower paid, more manual occupations often don't have access to the same flexible working opportunities as those in higher paid, managerial professions.
“While many have hailed the pandemic as a driver for the adoption of flexible working practices, particularly around home working, the reality for many is that this is not the case,” says Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
The CIPD has recently launched a campaign highlighting divisions in how employees are treated when it comes to accessing flexible working. Its survey of more than 2,000 workers found almost half do not have flexible working arrangements such as flexitime, part-time working, compressed hours or job shares.
A fifth of respondents said they work for organisations that do not offer any flexible working arrangements. Moreover, those without access to flexible working are around twice as likely to be dissatisfied in their job, compared with those who do.
Consequently, it has called for a change in law to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right for all employees. It also wants firms to stipulate in adverts that jobs can be done flexibly.
Under the current circumstances with school and nursery closures, working from home is less than ideal for many workers. But working remotely also allows you to work in a way that works best for you. Avoiding an uncomfortable commute and working in your own space can increase productivity. Homeworkers rank their productivity as 7.7 out of 10, compared with 6.5 for office workers, according to a Canada Life Survey.
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The ability to work remotely also has the potential to boost happiness and job satisfaction levels among employees too. A recent poll of 4,000 workers in the UK, US, Germany and France by the collaborative work management tool Wrike found UK workers think “meaningful work” is the key to office happiness, followed by the ability to work remotely. For some, remote working can reduce stress, with one PGi survey finding that 82% of workers who telecommute say they experience less stress.
Flexible working is also crucial for improving gender equality in the workplace because women aren’t forced to choose between having a family and a career. According to a 2019 FlexJobs survey of more than 2,000 women with children under 18, 31% of women who took a career break after having kids said they didn’t want to but had to because of a lack of workplace flexibility. Of those same women, 70% said it was difficult for them to reenter the workforce after taking time off.
And flexible working works for employers too, by boosting engagement, satisfaction, loyalty and diversity. Those who are able to work flexibly are less likely to call in sick and more likely to go “above and beyond” at work, with clear financial benefits for businesses.
“We need a new understanding about what flexible working is and we need employers to embrace flexible working arrangements beyond home working, to give opportunity and choice to all,” Cheese says. “Employees may not always be able to change where they work, but they should have more choice and a say in when and how they work.”