Events for Work Life Week focused on how greater flexibility can be normalised whether you work in an office or on the frontline.
This has been Work Life Week and there have been a number of different events centred around flexible working. Working Families, which launched the week, had three webinars: one on best practice, one on flexibility on the frontline and one on SMEs. The aim in part was to share good practice, but also to underline that flexible working is not just for people working in corporate offices. It’s an important message because if only one group of people can benefit it will create resentment.
The session on frontline working covered the NHS, housing and children’s services. With the NHS Plan, published in the summer, prioritising flexible working, the session heard that it was vital that conversations about flexibility were normalised so it did not come as a surprise if someone needed flexible working due to caring responsibilities. Senior leaders needed to role model different working patterns and more consideration had to be given, for example, to how to design flexibility into the NHS e-rostering system. Some parts of frontline workers’ roles could be done from home too – indeed some nursing staff had had to self isolate and could be redeployed to work that could be done in remotely. Flexible working is not a nice to have extra in some frontline sectors. For instance, it is critical to retention in the NHS, with figures showing that the vast majority of nurses are under 40 or over 55.
All the speakers spoke of the need for managers to trust workers and to have open conversations about different ways of working. They all said the feedback from patients/users and residents of having less access to face to face ways of communicating was mixed. Some people were desperate for face to face contact and anti-social behaviour had increased, but, on the other hand, some people preferred to do things remotely.
On the webinar on SMEs, Working Families outlined its most recent research which shows that parents who were working remotely during lockdown felt there was a more level playing field when many of the colleagues were also forced to work from home, although they didn’t feel some of the benefits of flexible working because they also had to look after their children. However, the survey showed understanding of the pressures on parents had increased, but many parents felt that expectations on them with regard to output had not changed amid worries about redundancies.
One of the issues for SMEs is the lack of resources to initiate support programmes and the like for working parents and, in any event, the panel said singling out parents for support might have negative consequences, creating resentment and making parents more vulnerable to redundancy. Julia Waltham from Working Families said that is why designing flexibility into jobs from the outset and making it possible for people to have that flexibility from day one is vital, rather than retro fitting flexibility to a particular person and trapping them in the job because they can’t find a flexible new position. She added that it was a crazy coincidence, when you came to think of it, that every job could be done in around 37 hours a week.
There were the usual discussions about the need for better communication with remote workers and the need to trust your staff and SMEs who had previously been flexible said they had found it easier than most to adapt to remote working. They were worried, however about the blurring of work life lines and general Covid fatigue. One business had given extra time off to help workers to recharge. It might seem counterintuitive at a busy time, but it had boosted morale and productivity. Others spoke about support for new starters, such as remote buddies and there was a recognition that some parents faced more challenges than others, for instance, parents of children with disabilities.
Another event this week, held by Bright Horizons, focused on how law firms had adapted to Covid. It covered concerns about how to retain the real benefits of the move to more remote or hybrid working and how to tackle some of the challenges, such as ensuring remote workers don’t feel they are somehow less important than those in the office in meetings.
Sarah Gregory, Inclusion & Diversity Partner at Baker McKenzie, said her firm was looking at guidance around meetings, for instance, maintaining a Zoom format for all workers, whether they are in the office or not. Other challenges included ensuring that remote trainees didn’t lose out on the sharing of knowledge that comes with being in a room with other more experienced members of staff. Baker McKenzie has experimented with a senior lawyer keeping unmuted on Zoom for several hours so younger colleagues could overhear conversations and learn from them as they would in an office setting. Another possibility was a kind of buddy system for trainees.
Gregory added that, during the pandemic, employees had been sharing postcodes so they could arrange to meet up for lunch. Speakers acknowledged there were many positives around remote working, including a potential reduction of bias in the interview process due to less socialising before interviews started, reductions in unnecessary international travel, greater remote access to legal services, more flexibility around regulation and an increased focus on mental health – including for partners. They said it had also meant people needed to be more creative, for instance, around how to celebrate Christmas, given all the usual workplace traditions associated with the season such as office parties. The lack of these could make people feel more depressed as could general Covid weariness, said speakers.
Clearly, the pandemic has accelerated flexible working, although there is still a danger that things could slip backwards, but it also seems to have brought some innovative thinking to bear on how and why we work. The real challenge, however, as a Women and Equalities meeting this week showed, is the looming unemployment crisis, the lack of jobs and the real risks of destitution for many families, given low benefits rates.