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Flexible working and the pandemic: what have we learned?

The coronavirus outbreak has taught us much about pandemics - from the reality of what front line workers face to the logistics of deploying a vaccine.

But we have also learned some perhaps more unexpected lessons, about how we work and how we may be able to work.

We’ve found that it is possible in certain cases for an entire organisation to work from home, certainly in the case of service-based businesses. We can on-board new staff remotely.

We’ve gained time from a lack of commuting but we’ve lost banter in-situ while learning that we have to talk with people intentionally as ‘office osmosis’ no longer exists.

We also no longer pick up on things from corridor conversations, chats by the coffee machine because we no longer have them. And small talk at the start and end of meetings is shrinking further still.

Working patterns

Now that we have approved vaccines and can start to think about a future post-pandemic, there is lots of talk about ‘getting back to normal’. But we have an opportunity to step back and take stock.

We do not have to go back to the way things were.

Companies can, and should, think more deeply about flexible working.

Remote working should be added as a serious option for many more members of staff than it was available to before.

Companies could offer staggered shifts so that parents can do the school run without stressing over traffic.

One option would be to operate part-time hours in the middle of the day – say 10am till 2pm - instead of mornings or afternoons so working mums can truly work around the school day.

Employees could do their full-time hours in a part-time pattern – working 40 hours over three or four days rather than five, so that they get more solid blocks of time away from work to spend with their families, on their homes, or caring for loved ones – something on which the older among us are increasingly having to spend more time.

Use of space

Companies not tied to long leases for office space can consider better uses for that space. We don’t have to live in ‘cubicle world’ or have open plan offices with regimented rows of desks. In fact, we may not need desks at all. If we use the space as flexible meeting places – we can reorganise it around team events, training, collaboration, briefings and innovation workshops, for example.

Even if we are going to have people back in offices, perhaps they can be better organised by business process than functional departments.

Or we can let go of space and simply use a smaller footprint.

That doesn’t have to be to the detriment of landlords either. There are plenty of people who are embracing the working from home culture but finding the isolation too much, or the set-up too impractical.

If you’re working from the end of your bed, on the dining room table or in the broom cupboard, a space near to where you live, where you can ‘hot desk’ and network with other local people doing the same might be just what you need.

Similarly, the self-employed – likely to be growing in number in 2021 - could take advantage of space and networking afforded by local office spaces.

Diversity and inclusion

Having been made redundant myself, in my mid-fifties, I know what it is like to lose your job with seemingly very little possibility of getting another one. This pandemic is following the typical pattern of any economic downturn in that it is the over 50s and under 25s who are losing out as companies are forced to close, or hurriedly restructure.

But here too, there are opportunities to re-think – certainly for larger organisations – teaming up older and younger workers in a coaching/mentoring and learning/innovation partnership that could see lots of new ideas generated and implemented by a challenged and motivated work force. For example reverse mentoring is an initiative one of our companies, Punter Southall Aspire, is trialling this year.

Whilst we have been learning to manage teams in a remote working scenario, it seems we have given little thought to how this could benefit us in the future. LinkedIn disappointingly reports that only 22% of job adverts on its platform in November 2020 mentioned flexible working options. That’s up from 15% in the same month in 2019 but, seriously, is that the best we can do?

I know it isn’t.

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Companies can, and should, think more deeply about flexible working.

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After 40 years of experience in the pensions world, I'm sharing my insights.