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Home » Flexible working – what happens next?

Flexible working – what happens next?

Here we are, slowly moving towards the 21st June when everyone hopes lockdown restrictions will end. When I look at what has happened in terms of working practice since the beginning of the pandemic, it feels like we have had a generational change in just 15 months. What concerns me is that while working practices have had to change, have organisations thought about what they will have to do in response? And what impact will this have on people’s mental health?

For some organisations the shift to home working appeared an opportunity to reduce their overhead costs and place some of that burden onto their staff. The reality is that not all jobs can be carried away from the workplace and not all homes are suitable for work. I suspect that the percentage of people who have a separate space to work from home is low. The outcome for these people appears to be a higher incidence of mental health and musculoskeletal issues. It appears that organisations have not stepped up to the plate here. Our own anecdotal evidence shows that while 80% of people who are working from home have had a workplace assessment, the same percentage think that the assessment wasn’t effective.

One in three of those who have asked SOHAS for advice on a workplace health issue over the past six months say the underlying issue is conflict with their line manager or employer. We are also seeing that there is a continuing disconnect between HR and employees, where we have seen a trend of organisations outsourcing their HR function. In some cases this has seen line managers being given traditional HR roles alongside their role but often without any additional training. Managing staff remotely is more complex and potentially time consuming. Managing via Zoom or Teams is not an effective way to form good relationships with staff. We can expect increasing stress for employees in these circumstances.

Research by the CIPD shows 44% of employees have not worked from home at all during the pandemic as their jobs do not allow it – yet only 30% of employers are planning to introduce other types of flexible working in the next six to 12 months. There needs to be a balance between how flexible and non-flexible roles are managed. I hope the upcoming report from the Flexible Working Taskforce will give strong recommendations on how to bring equality between the two types of working.

I think the TUC is quite right in raising concerns about a two-tier workforce emerging, but in truth I think we are there already – the pandemic has just brought the issue into a sharper focus.

Organisations are having to cope with a number of complex workforce issues. The UK workforce is getting older, unhealthier and family lives are getting more complex. Organisations engaging with their workforce on health and wellbeing issues are finding an intervention that works for a 25year-old may not be appropriate for a 60year-old. Buying in a traditional support package could be less effective in the future as employees seek some personalisation in terms of the kind of support they need from their employer as well as differing types of job flexibility.

The changes in how we work need appropriate changes from businesses and you would hope the government will be bold on flexible working, but recent experience shows that we are probably going to see mixed messages and fudging of the issue. There is a big opportunity to reconfigure how people work that will allow them to respond to the pressures they have on how they live their lives. If handled well this can bring benefits to organisations in terms of increased productivity, which has continued to be an issue for the UK for a generation. If businesses think that they can tinker around the edges, I suspect SOHAS will see a steady rise in the number of people seeking advice on how to reduce stress in the workplace