Embracing Flexibility

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Natalie Bickford. Here she considers the likelihood that one workplace impact of COVID-19 may be employers not just allowing, but embracing flexibility.

When I consider the long-term implications of the global shock that is Covid-19, the one permanent change I believe we will see is in the way in which big business organizes work.

For years now, Chief People Officers and diversity leaders have been selling the benefits of flexible, dynamic working and indeed, most organizations now have policies in place – flexible work programs, job shares, working from home, and so on, supported by engaging communications and earnest senior sponsorship. Yet, culturally, these programs have not always landed in a systematic way and have certainly not become the operational norm.

A recent survey in the U.K. showed that only 30% of the workforce experienced working from home in 2019, and only in the most modern of workplaces is there no career progression disadvantage to choosing to not be where the action is most of the time, with terms like “shirking from home” still being thrown about in quasi-jest.

In addition, regular and relentless business travel has been a marker of success and gritty commitment. The longer the haul, for the shortest of meetings, being the greatest badge of self-sacrifice for the company honor. Being in the office until all-hours, sacrificing the children’s bedtime story, remains a very current phenomenon, fuelled by the ways of “getting on around here” that have existed for 75 years in company culture.

And then, quite literally overnight in mid-March, it all came to a grinding and sudden halt. Now, whether you are a CEO or a team assistant, you are forced to stay and work from home if you can.  Our children are around, whether we like it or not, as are our partners and pets. I have laughed my way through various meetings with senior male colleagues, with six-year-olds hanging around their necks demanding attention and enjoyed several video calls with my team members sitting with sleeping puppies on their laps. We have all largely abandoned formal wear for “lounge wear”, and I have certainly been guilty of a pajama-ed bottom half on a number of occasions.

We have learned that we can run global businesses from a distance, that international team meetings can be successfully delivered on-line, and that decision-making is just as effective around a virtual table. And at a time where our wellbeing could become a major concern, many of us are secretly feeling wonderfully relaxed, without the stress of the grinding daily commute, the aching boredom of regular long haul flights, and have been somehow able to truly balance home and work life for the first time in our careers.

As we slowly come out of lockdown, if we are clever, we will reinstate all of the positive elements of physical work and avoid the resumption of many of the bad bits. Of course, we want to spend time with our colleagues, get out and about in our businesses, and sit around a table together to make big decisions. However, we now know for an absolute fact, that this can be successfully balanced with dynamic working, virtual collaboration, and only truly value-added travel.

Let’s take this opportunity to create a level playing field for our employees, and celebrate flexibility, rather than begrudgingly allow it. Let’s reduce our costs and help our planet by halving our office spaces, abandoning unnecessary commuting and travel, and putting our newly acquired lounge wear to long term good use. Let’s rejoice in having our families around us at times when we work, and recognize that we are all more creative, innovative and effective when we are less tired and weighed down by the administrative burden of juggling.

As I write this, my dog George is asleep by my feet, awaiting the extra walk that he knows I will afford him, as being at home has added two extra productive hours to my day. As far as George is concerned, lockdown is the best thing that has ever happened to him.

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