One of the stand-out features of the coronavirus crisis has been the imperative of working flexibly – unless you are one of the 7.5m workers furloughed, of course, and the 7.1m key workers. Well, that still leaves 53% of the working-age population. A lot of people still at work, but mostly not in their usual workplace.
There are many positives to this, the ultimate stress test for flexible working. Less travelling time is good for us as individuals and for the environment too. Being able to construct how you do your work around all the other (and possibly less moveable) bits of your life improves employee well-being as well as productivity. And all those unimaginative, untrusting, flexi-work nay-sayers who have said forever that “it’s not possible” have been proved just plain wrong by the wrecking ball of Covid.
There’s a strong push to say flexi-work has crossed the Rubicon. Not only are we not going back to how things were before, workplaces will be changed forever by what we are experiencing now. Why waste time and money travelling? Why maintain expensive offices? Especially with no “test, track and trace” regime and no vaccine, and ambiguous return-to-work arrangements (complete with s44 proceedings looming large). Time to make a virtue of a necessity you might say.
Not so fast. Not so straight-forward. Not so unambiguously good. Here’s why:
- Homeworking isn’t always possible. Not everyone has the space, the kit, the environment, the reliable hi-speed broadband.
- Homeworking doesn’t just take physical space. Does your insurance cover it? Can you separate out worklife and home? What are the tax consequences?
- Remote working outside the home doesn’t tick all the above boxes – and isn’t sustainable long-term, especially if social distancing continues.
This much is hopefully obvious. But let’s dig a little deeper.
- What if the home environment isn’t safe? Or is imbued with high levels of stress?
- What if the only other adult company you get is at a workplace?
- What is the impact on local economies of denuding them of almost all customers?
- What if you get treated inequitably in comparison to in-office colleagues or suffer from invasive management?
And are the public policy initiatives in place to make homeworking a viable choice: Universal broadband as a key utility? A workplace modernisation programme to make sure people have the right kit? Employee/employer relations that enforce fair and sustainable working practices?
Covid has shone a light on the possibilities and virtues of flexible working. There’s much to admire, but let’s not pretend it’s a magic wand to wave over all workplace issues. Employee voice, effective infrastructure, regulation and enforcement, and responsible employers are all key ingredients. And we haven’t even started talking about the other 47% of the working age population.
Photocredit: Adolfo Felix/Unsplash