Written Tuesday 3rd August 2021

Flexible working: is this the future?

In June 2021, the government started to consider making working from home the ‘default’ option for employees. We would have the right to request the opportunity to work remotely from our employer, but it would not become a legal right; it would be up to the organisation to accept or reject applications.

Working from home – and indeed flexible working – is a hot topic right now. As restrictions ease, and vaccinations appear to be making a difference despite concerns about mutations, returning to the office looks more and more likely for many of us who have been away since the early months of 2020. But how many of us will want to go back to our desks full time, and how many workers will still expect some level of flexibility with their working hours and location?

We’re already seeing large companies deciding whether or not their teams should expect being back at HQ full-time. In April, HSBC and JP Morgan announced that thousands of staff would be permanently working remotely going forward, whereas major banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have demanded that staff must return to the office. 

However, it’s not always an all-or-nothing situation. PWC has revealed it will be implementing a flexible working policy in the UK for its staff (all 22,000 of them), and 63% of members of the Institute of Directors said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.”

It’s this hybrid approach that the government and the media seem to be most interested in. So what are the benefits of working from home, and why might it not be a good idea to adopt it permanently?

The positive side of remote working

Since thousands of homes transformed into office spaces at the start of the first lockdown, employees have been enjoying the perks of working more flexibly. There is no denying it has many benefits for employers and employees alike. 

For instance, it’s worked wonders for our work/life balance, and that’s only improved since restrictions have slowly lifted and we’ve been able to enjoy a few of our favourite pastimes once more. The hours spent on commuting have been reclaimed and used for exercise or extra rest. There’s been more time for family, domestic tasks and even rediscovering hobbies; something we can all enjoy if remote working continues to be the norm.

Working remotely has also helped with our aim for creating a more equal and inclusive world. We’ve written before about how flexibility with spaces can help people with disabilities in the working world, removing the struggle of navigating offices and workspaces that aren’t accessible. It’s helped with childcare, particularly when schools closed due to increased Covid rates, and while it’s not all perfect – for instance, there’s still a gender imbalance when it comes to parental roles – there are certainly benefits, like more family time and flexible hours. 

Then there are the economic benefits. With fewer bodies in the building, organisations could start downsizing, cutting rental costs and even energy usage. Fewer commuting employees could mean fewer cars on the road, which would be great for the environment. There’s also the argument for better motivation. Flexibility and trust in your team, combined with all of the above, may mean an increase in staff happiness, an improvement in wellbeing, and a better working ethos. Employees could work in local cafes or co-working spaces, with friends and family, or even from anywhere in the world.

But is it all as simple as that?

The downsides of doing it all remotely

It’s fair to say the perks of working from home are plentiful, but it’s important to remember not everybody has had a rosy experience during the pandemic, and these difficulties would only continue if the arrangement became long-term or permanent.

Quite simply, not everybody has the space for a home office. We all saw those photos of colleagues making do with laptops balanced on ironing boards or children’s desks. Many workers will be living in house shares, which would mean they would be likely to be working, sleeping and relaxing in one bedroom with very little space for a break. If working in these places became permanent, not everybody could afford to adapt and make their new office comfortable and therefore conducive to productivity and mental and physical wellbeing. Organisations may kindly offer up equipment, ergonomic office chairs and similar, but if you haven’t got the physical space for it, there’s not much you can do.

It’s important to consider the cost of working from home, too. While companies may save with downsizing, the costs could rack up for employees. While some may no longer be paying for outrageously high tickets or fuel prices on their commute, working from home could mean higher energy bills. Additionally, not everybody has access to the internet, and the most reliable providers may not fit into people’s budgets. Remote working could increase socioeconomic inequalities.

Living conditions can also be an issue if you are living in an unsafe or unwelcoming space. Some may see the office as a refuge from those they live with: they may encounter abusive, offensive or discriminatory behaviour, domestic violence or manipulation, homophobia, or similar at home. Losing the office permanently could mean losing a safe space they look forward to visiting.

This leads us to another point; loneliness. For those who live alone, or feel isolated or alone in their home, the office may be their main source of social interaction and friendship. Often, office life comes with chats over making coffee in the kitchen, after-work drinks or just a quick catch up over lunch,  and it’s easy to imagine how much that would be missed and the impact that could have.

All of this can come hand in hand with mental health and wellbeing. Each of these challenges could pile up and make life extremely hard for many. The worries, the isolation and, potentially, lack of motivation could become overwhelming.

We can’t forget the professional problems that come from removing the office space, either. While it’s worked so far, keeping track of productivity, drive and focus is tricky, and equally, it’s sometimes hard to stay motivated when each day looks and feels the same. There’s also the argument that physically coming together in the office can lead to some excellent creativity and brainstorming, helps new employees embed themselves in the organisations’ culture, and encourages collaboration. It’s harder to effectively train and mentor team members remotely, too.

Getting the balance right

There will always be upsides and downsides to remote working. Returning to the office would be beneficial for so many reasons, but could also be a step backwards in others. A hybrid approach, which seems to be the path the government is keen to follow, could be the answer. 

While it’s up to organisations to assess what works best for them and their employees, making it standard procedure to allow and encourage flexible working would help staff explore what works best for them. Allowing teams to choose what they want to do could result in getting the balance right. Flexibilities can even be adapted further for those with extra needs – whether that means parents working changeable hours, people opting to work in the office due to issues at home, or people with disabilities opting to work from home full time.

This flexibility will be a learning curve. If some employees are in the office less, their lack of visibility shouldn’t impact their prospects, and they shouldn’t be subject to more scrutiny or less trust. Equally, those who love office life should still benefit from work-life balance, eschewing the culture of working long hours for the sake of it.

Whatever happens, this is an opportunity to put individual workers’ needs first, and rethink office life for the better. It would be a mistake not to take advantage of the situation and find a new normal for those who spend their time, mostly, at a desk – wherever they want that desk to be.