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Will the future of flexible working actually work for us?

Will the future of flexible working actually work for us?

Back in March, when the government announced lockdown and a (pretty much) nationwide shift to working from home, there was a collective intake of breath. How would we keep tabs on our teams? How were we going to turn our dining tables into desks? What the hell is a Slack channel?!

While the adoption of our new WFH culture has not been without its challenges, here we are, eight months later, settled into a rhythm of Monday morning Zoom huddles and Friday evening Zoom team drinks. Flexible working is now the norm. 

Before lockdown only 8% of British people were working remotely – the figure now stands close to 65%, one of the highest in Europe. It proves that in the face of a global pandemic, businesses were able to adapt, and quickly. It also proves that it is totally possible to be a productive, passionate, and professional employee  – even if you’re sitting at home in your slippers.

Many people have been asking – and campaigning – for a more adaptable approach to work for years. While it’s certainly a ‘people issue’ rather than a ‘parent issue’, it’s undeniable that the fight for flexible working has been somewhat spearheaded by working mothers – alongside those with specific accessibility needs or responsibilities outside of parenthood, like being a carer. It would be easy to assume this cultural shift would be music to the ears of these people, but the truth is, it’s a little bittersweet. Why was it a pandemic – and not the needs of people – that pushed for progress?

The flexible working fight

This time last year, the Patron Saint of Flexible Working, Anna Whitehouse, (aka 'Mother Pukka') was in the throes of her latest UK campaign, Flex For All.  In 2015, Anna became the unintentional spokesperson for people who wanted a less rigid way of working. After quitting her job at a large corporation when they wouldn’t let move her workday by 15 minutes, so she could pick up her daughter, Anna started Flex Appeal – a campaign aiming to change both mindsets and legislation around flexible working.

What followed was a tireless fight to shine a light on this important issue. And this was one that involved Ted Talks, social media campaigns, and flash mobs clad in brightly colored spandex. But after 4 years, things were still pretty bleak. Even a 2019 survey by the TUC found that one in three requests for flexible working were being turned down and flexi-time was unavailable to over 58% of the UK workforce. Anna joined forces with Pregnant Then Screwed, Fawcett Society, Young Women's Trust, and The Fatherhood Institute to create Flex For All and take the campaign to a whole new level. And then lockdown happened and suddenly flexible working went from being a plea from the few to a reality for the many.

A flexi-future

2020 has made it clear that a lot of jobs are remote-working friendly, which something that many employees have been trying to tell their bosses for years. The result of the pandemic has seen a swift gear change in the approach to remote working and it seems that a lot of large organizations have no intention of going back to their previous way of conducting business. A recent survey by The Times found that three-quarters of Britain’s biggest employers are looking at a permanent shift to flexible working.

Now, this may sound great, but as we move forward into a flexible future, what we have been doing the last eight months isn’t the flexible working environment campaigners envisaged. We’ve been working from home during a global pandemic that has thrown every other area of our life into a tailspin – and have had to juggle a new way of working with increased childcare responsibilities, concerns around redundancies, and a threat to our national healthcare system.

Flex For All recently released its own report titled Flex Forever, expanding on the impact of the crisis and the future of remote working. The survey results show clearly that the majority of employees want to see flexible working adopted in a post-COVID-world, but it also highlights the need to be careful of ‘Fake Flex’. Fake Flex is where companies have made radical changes in response to the crisis that may seem flexible, but in fact, could lead to overwork and increased stress levels for their employees. 

“Enforced remote working, which we’re currently in, is not effective flexible working,” Anna said on a recent Stylist Podcast episode. “But what it has done on a legal and human level is open up the conversation around what can we do post-lockdown to ensure this momentum continues on flexibility in terms of working anywhere and everywhere.”

Mind the gap

We need to be mindful of how WFH can impact men and women differently – particularly if they are part of a parenting team. A recent survey by the Boardlist and Qualtrics found that there is still a huge gender disparity when it comes to the effects of working from home. The survey results reported that a huge 77% of fathers said they were more productive while working at home, compared to just 46% of women who have children. Men were also more likely to get a pay rise, be offered a promotion, and be given more leadership responsibilities since remote working became the norm.

Working mothers hoped that flexible working would empower them to progress professionally without sacrificing a happy home life or their own mental health. However, in a society where the vast majority of emotional and domestic labor still falls on the shoulders of women – regardless of our employment status – it’s unsurprising that the perfect work/life balance still evades us and that. 

It looks like working from home is – ironically – going nowhere anytime soon. For parents, this means less time on their daily commute and more time with their families. It means no longer running for the early train, just to make the nursery pick up or no longer having to store your pumped breastmilk in the communal fridge.

If there are any positives to come out of lockdown, maybe these are some of them. But for us all to benefit, we need more sustainable working practices and a better balance of responsibilities at home.