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    How to balance the virtual and physical realms of flexible working

    05 August 2021

    Steve Butler

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    2 minute read

    How the pandemic has changed where and how we work

    Flexible working

    Flexible working was with us as a concept long before COVID entered our lives and language.

    In fact, I was writing about it on April 18th, 2019 because it - flexible working - was in the press then.

    I was relaying how an international bank had called an end to its 50,000 staff working from home and wanted them in the office where they could collaborate more effectively.

    This directive was then swiftly followed by a further missive, calling for an immediate pause on the plans to consider the impact on its people.

    And that seems to have been that.

    Fast forward two years and many more organisations are in the same boat – with managers having to decide what will be best for their business: back to the commute and conference room or laptop and Zoom from the spare bedroom.

    I think the answer is a blend of both.

    The pandemic has turbo-charged what was an emerging shift to different patterns of working. Looking back on my two-year-old post, it was a storm in a teacup compared to the scale of what we now face.

    For most of us, the workplace has become a much more diverse place and, frankly, the onus is on leaders to make sure it is also inclusive in equal measure.

    I think that means carefully considering what shape flexible working should take to get the most from your people.

    Flexibility is probably second-nature for colleagues in their twenties, the ones who smile indulgently when you (me) tell them you had to wear a suit and tie and be at your desk by 9am every weekday decades ago.

    And having the ability to work from home is probably welcome for older workmates who have to juggle caring for elderly relatives with their professional lives. Not to mention working mothers, who often still bear disproportionate responsibility for childcare.

    So, job done? Flexible working has been the silver lining to the darkness of the coronavirus cloud?

    Not quite. What about the advantages of working together in person? After all, that’s where many of the more mature among us were able, earlier in our careers, to watch, listen and follow what work should be, and where we were when we realised we were making professional progress.

    I think it’s important younger colleagues can access that kind of occupational osmosis: learning by absorbing what goes on around them without consciously realising the positive impact.

    It’s why we’ve taken steps to make sure there’s the right kind of space for people, more meeting than seating, and aim for everyone to be physically present for significant gatherings. That way, we are all on the same level.

    Hybrid working

    In my view, hybrid working should embrace this combination of the virtual and the actual. It does mean more effort for managers and their HR colleagues to put in place the processes, but I feel certain it’s a step worth taking for everyone involved.

    Like much else, it’s not fixed. Think of it as a six-month social experiment. What will it mean for companies leasing office space? Will there be a move from years-long contracts to pay-as-you-go meeting spaces four or five days a month while your employees work wherever they like for the rest of the time? Or will you have the ability to bring people together whenever you want in a way you hadn’t thought of before?

    Perhaps. ‘Only time will tell’ isn’t the first cliché in this post, but it might be the one which is most apt.

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    The pandemic has turbo-charged what was an emerging shift to different patterns of working.

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    Chief Executive Punter Southall Aspire

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