The global pandemic has necessitated a period of enforced and long-term homeworking for many of the UK’s workers. In late 2019 around 7% of the population regularly worked from home; by the end of April 2020 Covid-19 had increased this to just under half of the workforce.
This has led to many organisations considering their position on flexible working. Flexible working brings with it many evidence-based business and individual benefits, as I explore in my latest book. However, despite these benefits and a considerable desire for flexibility from many employees, the CIPD had (prior to the pandemic) described the progress towards flexible working as ‘glacial’. The recent months have been referred to as a great working from home experiment. However, working from home in a crisis, without the time for appropriate planning, training and necessary structures is far from typical homeworking.
We must also take care not to conflate homeworking with flexible working more generally. Since March 2020 we have embraced location flexibility (because we had to) but we have not truly embraced other, more comprehensive forms of flexibility. We do know however from multiple surveys that have been undertaken, there is a strong desire from employees to retain an element of homeworking post the pandemic.
For those organisations who are considering the future of flexible and homeworking, there is much to think about and plan for. With regard to flexible working policies in particular here are a few ideas to think about:
- Drop the time criteria.
UK law provides for a 26-week waiting period before employees can apply for flexible working. This is a barrier to talent acquisition. Everyone in this conversation – employee, manager and wider organisation – will benefit from having this conversation at the earliest possible stage. Ideally this should be during recruitment. If flexible working is an option, say so in your job adverts. Be clear on the forms of flexibility you will consider and expressly tell people that they can ask.
- Reflect on your timeline.
UK law allows employees a maximum of three months (including an appeal if one is offered) to consider a flexible working request. This is too long. Employees don’t want to wait around for an answer a decision that may be critical for them and their home circumstances. In most cases there is just no need to take this long to make a decision. This is a talent retention risk – reduce it wherever possible.
- Build out personal bias.
Ideally, the employee’s immediate line manager should make the decision on whether flexible working is suitable for a particular role. Wherever possible such decisions should be process light. However, this brings with it a risk that managers who are personally biased against flexible working can have too much say over whether it is available to their team. Application processes should always have some oversight or a route for consideration by a neutral party, whether that is HR or a more senior manager.
- Promote trial periods.
Unless there is a clear reason that flexible working is not appropriate for a particular role or circumstances, a trial period should always be considered before an application for flexible working is declined. Trial periods can take place for a few weeks or several months, during which evidence as to its benefits or challenges should be collated before a final decision is made.
- Consider other relevant policies.
For those organisations who want a more flexible future, the flexible working policy is just one document that will need to be reviewed and updated. Expenses, travel, homeworking, IT and performance management policies all need to take into account greater amounts of flexible working.
It is likely that homeworking will continue for many, at least in the short term. This is the time for organisations to think about what comes next, and how it can best be supported through policies and beyond.