Managing flexible working: learning to cope with the new normal? Blog by Professor Clare Lyonette and Beate Baldauf
The ramifications of the current Covid-19 crisis are likely to be felt in all areas of our lives. Many of the future projections we hear and read about every day are understandably stark and doom-laden, but are there any potentially positive implications of the pandemic?
The sharp rise in the number of people being required to work solely from home during the current crisis has led to a surge in interest in the longer-term outcomes of wider flexible working, with many researchers in the UK and elsewhere discussing Covid-19 as a possible turning point in our attitudes towards greater flexibility (Moen, 2020; Slaughter and Bell, 2020; Bevan, 2020).
Before Covid-19 hit the headlines, we conducted a review of relevant literature since 2008 (Lyonette and Baldauf, 2019) for the Government Equalities Office to identify what evidence exists that family-friendly working policies and practices (FFWPs) benefit or disadvantage employers, and to identify any good practice from employer-led interventions in implementing FFWPs.
In response to the current crisis, many managers are having to deal with staff working from home, some of whom have small children or elderly relatives to care for during the day. Researchers have argued for years that managers, especially those with daily responsibility for staff, are key to the success of flexible working (Lewis, 2003). Here we offer some insights into the known benefits of flexible working and make some recommendations, based on tried and tested interventions in different organisational contexts, to support employers and managers in negotiating widespread flexible working through the crisis and beyond.
Flexible working – the benefits and disadvantages for employers
The majority of research highlights positive organisational outcomes from implementing a broad range of FFWPs, including cost savings, better productivity, improved recruitment and retention and reduced absenteeism. Cost savings can arise from both direct and indirect effects, such as improved employees’ work-life balance and reduced stress leading to reduced absenteeism and turnover, or perceptions of a positive workplace culture leading to greater commitment, loyalty and productivity. These indirect effects are harder to measure, e.g. isolating these effects from other individual and organisational-level factors is difficult, and a lack of clear evidence may deter some employers from implementing FFWPs. Of course, there are some negative aspects to certain types of flexible working for individual employees. For example, enforced homeworking can have an adverse effect: many employees do not have the space to work permanently from home or in a remote location, even with advanced IT options, and others prefer the social aspects of a workplace setting (Lyonette et al., 2017). Employers should be aware of the potentially negative effects this may incur over the longer–term (e.g. reduced wellbeing and loyalty to the organisation may lead to reduced productivity, which will serve to deplete any savings made from reduced office space and resources). Taken together, however, the evidence points to positive impacts for both employers and employees. The types of FFWPs offered may differ according to the organisation and the requirements of particular job types (e.g. customer-facing roles, emergency services, etc.) but introducing a more flexible workplace culture would appear to have wide-ranging benefits.
Lessons learned from successful interventions
So what lessons can be learned from successful interventions in implementing flexible working prior to the Covid-19 pandemic? Here we draw out recommendations to help organisations move towards more flexible working.
- Encourage transparency among managers, flexible workers and other colleagues: Senior management and line managers need to be trained in managing flexible workers, especially in the current crisis. The roll-out of widespread FFWPs requires ongoing monitoring and updating as flexible working arrangements can affect other team members, as well as managers. Open dialogue is important in creating a trusting environment, one in which flexible workers and their colleagues can voice concerns and discuss positive ways forward (not everyone will prefer to work from home in the longer-term).
- Introduce and promote a wide range of FFWPs: While some FFWPs may prove to have better organisational outcomes for different employers, the evidence did not allow for the identification of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ individual policies and practices. Employers are encouraged to introduce trial periods of a broad range of FFWPs to identify what works best.
- Disseminate good practice: Employers need to understand and accept the business case for flexible working and can learn from good practice examples of employers and employees operating in a similar environment. Flexibility ‘champions’ (preferably senior managers) can promote the case for flexibility within their own organisation but also in others. Being seen as a pioneer in flexible working, and also doing the right thing for employees, can convey a powerful message to potential employees, as well as to existing staff. This may have the knock-on effect of increasing morale and job satisfaction, as well as recruiting and retaining valued employees after the current crisis.
- Develop a positive workplace culture: The availability of FFWPs within an organisation is not a guarantee that employees will feel able to make use of them. A positive workplace culture, one in which management is supportive of flexible working and which encourages take-up of flexible working, is required, especially at a time when workers may feel vulnerable to job losses. Senior management can play an important role, signalling to line managers and to other employees that flexible working is normalised within an organisation.
- Trial and measure flexible working over a reasonable time period: Any widespread implementation of flexible working should be trialled and measured for both employee and employer outcomes over a reasonable period of time. It is unlikely that outcomes such as productivity and turnover can be properly assessed over a short period and other factors potentially affecting such outcomes should also be considered (e.g. the external labour market and the impact of Covid-19, the introduction of new IT systems, etc.).
- Think in the longer-term: It is recognised that flexibility can be employer- or employee-led and, in difficult economic times such as the one created by Covid-19, it is perhaps unsurprising that employer-led flexibility is prioritised over the needs and wellbeing of employees. However, employers need to remain focused upon the wellbeing of their employees. An upturn in the labour market may encourage valued employees to leave if unsatisfied, leading to high turnover costs and a loss of vital skills.
- Challenge gendered attitudes and approaches towards flexible working: While FFWPs would appear to be beneficial to many women, especially those with caring responsibilities, they also have the potential to work against gender equality. Any perceptions of flexible working as a ‘woman’s issue’ should be challenged and all employees need to be offered and encouraged to take up FFWPs. Male and female role models working flexibly can demonstrate to others that it can be done successfully. Any training and development opportunities need to be offered equally to men and women, working flexibly or not, in order to reduce any inequalities in promotion and progression.
History will show whether Covid-19 proves to be a turning point in our attitudes towards greater workplace flexibility.
Find further outputs from the Government Equalities Office programme of research, and its wider focus upon closing the gender pay gap, here.