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Is flexible working here to stay?

Debates over flexible working have been everywhere recently. When the coronavirus pandemic first arrived on our shores in the spring, the government’s announcement that we should all “work from home if we can” ushered in a huge sea-change for workers across the UK. Although a return to the office was then encouraged over the summer, there was no great stampede – office workers largely preferred to continue working from home. Following a recent spike in coronavirus cases, working from home is now the official advice once again.  

The question beneath the surface of all this, of course, is whether the dramatic rise in flexible working heralds a real and lasting change in work culture. Will employers still allow their workers to work from home once life returns to normal?  

Will employees be pushing for greater flexibility, following their experiences? Or will commuting and office culture fall back into its old familiar grooves?  

Workers are still keen 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK workers still have an appetite for flexible working. Research from Direct Line, for example, shows us that more than 13 million will be asking for some kind of flexible working after COVID-19. The study also highlights some of the key reasons behind the popularity of flexible working, from an employee’s point of view. Greater work-life balance was an important factor for workers, as 23% said they realised they’d spent too much time commuting, and a further 22% said they wanted to spend more time with their children. Ref: https://www.directline.com/life-cover

Many workers will have enjoyed these benefits of flexible working over the past couple of months, and will not be so keen to relinquish them when the pandemic passes. From their point of view, the case against flexible working will also have been weakened even further – if they have demonstrated to their employer that they can work from home just as effectively, what is the rationale behind removing the opportunity to do so – especially considering the wider benefits to their wellbeing? 

The productivity question 

For any lasting change to work culture, it may not be enough that employees are keen. Employers will have to be in favour too.  

The number one stumbling block in the way of permanent flexible working is the question of productivity. Employers have traditionally been wary of allowing employees free rein over how and where they work, without the physical oversight that an office provides. It may be, however, that these fears are misguided – and that the opposite may actually be true. One study found that two-thirds of employers reported higher levels of productivity in their remote workers, compared to their in-office counterparts. 

It may be that flexible workers are more productive due to their improved wellbeing, or that they can concentrate more effectively in their home environment. But whatever the reason, employers should be encouraged by the productivity levels these studies have shown. Many, of course, will be able to draw on their own firsthand data from flexible working experiments during the pandemic.  

There are benefits for employers too 

Flexible working can also offer employers a range of potential benefits – building further impetus behind the idea of a permanent flexible working culture. The cost of running large office spaces for staff can be substantial, and so some money-conscious businesses may see this as an area they could cut back on – especially in the difficult economic times brought about by COVID-19. As well as this, if companies moved to remote working they would be able to draw upon talent from all across the world. With many businesses struggling to survive, flexible working could be the revolutionary kind of change that’s needed.  

The world has changed 

Taking all these factors into account, it’s clear that flexible working has a good chance of changing the way we work for years to come. Workers have embraced this change, and there are signs that businesses are waking up to the benefits of this way of working too. COVID-19 has been a transformative experience across many aspects of our society, and it looks like the way we work will truly never be the same again.  

If you need help and advice on any Employment Law issues, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0113 350 4030 or at hello@scesolicitors.co.uk

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SCE Solicitors is a boutique employment law and litigation practice based in Leeds which advises clients nationwide. Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here. 

Jennifer Hoult
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