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Behind all the current disputes about flexible working is a battle over time and how much choice we have in how we use it.
Should employers go all out and offer employees a right to work wherever they want? Does the whole concept of work need to be changed rather than people trying to fit an office-based culture, based on a series of face-to-face meetings, into a hybrid or remote format? Are the problems long associated with remote working not so much about remote working itself but more to do with trying to add it on to an already-existing workplace culture? And is hybrid working – by its very nature a mix of office and remote – the most difficult challenge of all, given it blends two different cultures, with fears that one – likely the office – will dominate?
These are all hugely important questions. For those who have worked remotely for a while, the freedom to move work time around has been immense. I’ve worked for both a remote organisation and a mainly office-based one in a hybrid way. If you work for a remote first organisation the structures are in place and you can fairly easily adapt to not seeing each other in person for months on end. Meetings are online, there are fewer of them and you can drop out of the bits that don’t concern you and you can do a lot via messenger or the like. Plus there are a huge number of other collaboration tools for specific purposes.
I’ve noticed that, during the pandemic, office-based jobs have sometimes tried to replicate what happened in the office. That means more online meetings, often with lots of people who don’t really need to be there or certainly don’t need to be there for the whole time. A lot of it is about updating each other, which is important, but if you don’t have anything to update, is that a good use of your time? Yes, it is good to know what others are doing, but is a meeting always the best way to do that? It’s not that I’m against meetings, but smaller, more focused meetings seem the way to go and some could be message-based rather than on camera.
Yet face to face definitely has its place, particularly when it comes to getting to know a new colleague or the like. The social chat is much reduced online and feels like time wasting when, if you’re meeting over a coffee in person, it just seems normal – and the social stuff is important.
Colleagues who are used to the office have also expressed worries about zooming in a busy environment. I’m not sure some of these worries are well-founded. We used to talk on phones all the time in offices back in the day. And you can simply put your headphones on and block out the world around you – I know I’ve done that throughout lockdown while total chaos has been going on around me. Having a quiet area somewhere for more sensitive online meetings may be a good thing though.
Is the issue then that we have changed over the last year, but that we haven’t gone far enough? We haven’t yet let go of our office moorings enough? Or will something like Deloitte’s new work where you want policy lead to disaster, with no-one feeling truly part of the company? That will, of course, depend on what is put in place to create a sense of shared culture. It’s not a building that creates that culture or the slog of the commute, but sharing time with people, often more time than you share with your family if you work full time. That can, of course, go either way, depending on how well you get on with your colleagues. Office politics can be awful for many people.
Time is what matters in relationships. We’ve seen that in recent research on dads. Time creates both confidence and closer bonds. Time with our kids is what many parents crave when they seek more flexible working. In the past the time equation has been balanced in favour of the office which may suit some people, particularly those who look to work for their social life or are starting out at work, but for many it causes resentment and misery. Time matters enormously. It cannot be rewound and done again.
So that is why we are seeing an almighty battle between some employers who want to return to the old patterns and many, though by no means not all, of their employees. There is not one right answer to any of this and every job and sector is different as is every person’s circumstances – plus, as we must keep stating, flexible working is not all about remote working. Flexi hours, part-time working, job shares, annualised hours and all the other permutations are also important and many jobs cannot be done remotely.
But the key issue is time. Work – and commuting – has encroached on more and more of it in recent decades. How we use the time that we have – how we are allowed to use it – is essentially all that matters.