Over the past decade the workplace in the UK has seen some noticeable changes in some respects, but little movement in others. On the one hand, homeworking, or remote working as it is sometimes labelled, has seen an improvement in uptake. By contrast, flexible working has not been embraced with the same levels of enthusiasm. At the same time, productivity levels remain sluggish in the UK while work intensity has increased modestly for employees.
How has COVID-19 affected the way we work?
The onset of the pandemic looks set to have a bearing on many of these trends in the short-term and long-term. And the latest CIPD report, Embedding new ways of working, based on a survey of more than 1000 employers and 12 in-depth organisations, suggests that the major shift to homeworking as a result of the coronavirus will indeed have a significant impact on our working lives.
Overall, the report indicates that homeworking over the pandemic has been a positive experience for most employers. It is no surprise therefore that a large majority of employers are planning to introduce or expand the use of homeworking once the crisis is over. Key benefits reported by employers include improved work-life balance (cited by 61% of employers), enhanced employee collaboration (43%) and improved focus (38%). Given the gradual increase in work intensity reported by employees over the past few years, the work-life balance benefits associated with the increase in homeworking looks set to have a positive impact on job satisfaction and staff commitment. The benefits that accrue to employers from this will be reduced absenteeism and improved retention.
The report also suggests that the increase in homeworking will not have an adverse impact on productivity. Two-thirds of employers report that homeworkers are more or as productive as when in the workplace. Overall, 28% of employers report that the increase in homeworking has boosted productivity, while 37% say it has not impacted productivity levels, and 28% of employers reporting a decrease. The case study interviews, which if anything point to an increase in productivity levels, suggest that the reduction in commuting time and a greater focus on tasks could be key factors behind the increase in productivity reported by some employers.
Key concerns from the research
However, the research also highlights the challenges of managing homeworkers. In particular, employers highlight reduced staff mental wellbeing (47%), problems with staff interaction/co-operation (36%) and difficulties with line managing homeworkers (33%) and monitoring their performance (28%).
Another issue highlighted by the research is the risk of a two-tier workforce. This is because employers are not expected to embrace flexible working arrangements with the same levels of enthusiasm as homeworking, according to the research. The good news is that as many, as a third (33%) of employers, say they plan to introduce new forms of flexible working or increase the uptake of existing flexible working arrangements more broadly once lockdown restrictions end. However, the increase in activity is heavily skewed towards working from home regularly (70%) or all the time (45%), part-time working (40%) and flexi-time (39%). These trends are already prevalent. There is less enthusiasm towards other flexible working arrangements, which could help those with caring responsibilities and the disabled, such as annualised hours, term-time working and job sharing. At a time when many employers are consulting staff about new ways of working, now could be a good opportunity for employers to ask about the wide range of flexible working arrangements alongside their preferences related to homeworking.
A key concern resulting from the relative lack of enthusiasm towards flexible working, is that the gap between homeworkers and other employees who have to go to work and have little flexibility, will grow further. It is often essential workers and lower-paid front line staff who are not able to work from home, and it is crucial these workers are not left behind when we think about flexible working. Making the right to request flexible working a day one right would support the uptake of a wider range of flexible working beyond homeworking.
Homeworking and flexible working together
The increase in homeworking and flexible working arrangements, therefore, needs to go hand in hand; not least to help with inclusion and how we create positive work opportunities across our economies.
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