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The age of agile working

Remote_working_from_home_ laptop_cup_of_coffee Print publication

22/05/2020

Click here to watch our video nugget on agile working.

There has been a national “home-working experiment” as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Prior to this, many businesses had few or no staff working remotely.  Of course, for some, it might not have been possible, but for many it was due to a pre-conceived negative view of working from home or a reluctance to tackle the challenges and technology.

As a result of the enforced experiment into different ways of working, many businesses have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of operating with all (or the majority of) their staff working remotely.  However, some publications and surveys have suggested that almost half of those who are currently working from home (but did not normally work from home prior to the pandemic) felt their employers would reverse widespread remote working once the pandemic is over and, instead, revert to their previous policies.  As time has gone on and it has become clear that there is no quick way of going back to “business as usual”, attitudes are most likely to have changed.

We are therefore exploring what businesses can learn from the home-working experiment.  Walker Morris is working in on a research project with the University of Leeds to seek to identify how employees manage the boundaries between work and home, how they interact with colleagues in a virtual environment and the influence this has on their work satisfaction, productivity and general wellbeing.  Below, we take an initial look at both the benefits and implications of this new age of agile working.

  • Changing attitudes to agile working and effective management – Some managers may have viewed an employee’s desire to work from home as a way to avoid certain responsibilities and/or a have a perception that employees are not productive on days spent working from home. However, many individuals, particularly those classed as “millennials” and “generation Z”, value flexibility and agile working ahead of pay – and this experiment may well have shown an increase in productivity as well as employee satisfaction (although that will be for each individual business to gauge in terms of what has worked for them).   The new world of work looks set to have agile working at its forefront, with the home-working experiment speeding up the culture-shift.  The focus of putting in “face-time” in the office may now change, and lead to an increase in trust between managers and staff.  Employers should therefore consider how to effectively manage and analyse the performance of those working from home (for example, by offering their directors and managers training on leadership in a virtual world, introducing comprehensive home-working policies, and implementing new technology and systems to monitor work output), to ensure that agile working is working for their business.

 

  • Ability to recruit from a wider labour pool (including internationally) and positive impact on the environment – Individuals may no longer restrict their job searches to businesses within a certain radius of their homes and employers may widen their recruitment searches to find the best talent. This is likely to be a real positive for both employers and employees:
    • Less time spent commuting may result in a better utilisation of employees’ time and greater job-satisfaction.
    • An international and diverse workforce should no longer be reserved for tech giants such as Google – and this move may assist businesses in expanding and reaching more clients and customers across the world.
    • The environment will benefit from less work-related travel, which will assist businesses in meeting their sustainability goals – which should also be high up on the agenda.

 

  • Flexible working and diversity – As stated above, agile and flexible working may assist in creating a more diverse workforce. In addition to changes to work location, employees with childcare and other caring responsibilities will have been working flexibly in the sense of their hours of work (with many parents taking certain “shifts” when juggling home-schooling and childcare with work).  Overall, it seems that the eventual death of the “nine-to-five” is inevitable – and it could well be beneficial having certain employees “online” and available at different times of day.  One obvious implication of this is the question of how employers will deal with flexible working requests and potential discrimination issues.  It seems increasingly unlikely that employers will be able to objectively justify a policy or requirement for staff in many job roles to be present in the office and/or to work within the confinement of set hours – meaning that real consideration will need to be given to the business’ policies on agile and flexible working and its approach to flexible working requests.

 

  • Gig economy and employment status – Greater flexibility should not necessarily lead to a diminishing of employment rights. Many “gig economy” workers want to be engaged in less traditional ways due to the flexibility it offers – however, unfortunately, some of those individuals may have fallen through the gaps in terms of the government’s assistance under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the Scheme).  The Chancellor’s comments when announcing the Scheme will have also laid the foundations for a wider review of the gig economy/employment status debate – quite possibly in the direction of even greater tax collection.  Businesses should therefore be careful before basing their economic recovery around a self-employed or zero-hours workforce and, as stated above, in a 24/7 world of work, it can actually be beneficial for “traditional” employees to be working flexible hours, with the “nine-to-five” model no longer being fit for purpose.

 

  • Mental well-being and health and safety considerations – Remote-working has, for some, blurred the boundaries between work and home life – which can of course take its toll on people’s mental health and well-being, read our previous article on this. This will of course have an impact on how leaders can manage staff in a digital world and communicate effectively.  Employers will need to consider how they will ensure employees are taking adequate rest-breaks and not exceeding weekly working limits to avoid falling foul of legal requirements – this will likely be done by investing in adequate technology and monitoring systems and putting new guidelines, policies and practices in place.  In addition, employers should remain mindful of their health and safety duties in respect of home-workers.  While risk assessments are likely to take a different (virtual) form, it should still be ensured that employees are comfortable that they can do their job safely, they have the right equipment, and they have access to the relevant information and policies relating to home-working.

 

  • The interplay between living and working spaces and access to equipment – Employees may start to request their employers to reimburse them for more expenses when home-working – for items such as display-screen equipment, desks and stationery and for costs associated with use of broadband, heating and electricity, which is an additional cost for businesses to factor in. However, employers can also benefit by saving the over-heads associated with large office spaces. This leads us to consider how property and offices will be utilised in different ways – and developers were already working on projects involving shared “co-living and co-working” spaces.  In addition, while investing in technology, automating processes and digitalisation may have already been on the agenda, businesses who engage employees in roles which are not currently capable of being carried out remotely should consider investing in the development of new technology.  Enabling more sectors of the workforce to operate remotely should, in turn, assist in the development and growth of the business and give employers a sound basis on which to plan for unforeseen events such as pandemics!

 

It’s clear that the topic of agile working will remain at the forefront for businesses.  We will publish further insights following our research project with the University of Leeds, but the message is that embracing agile working as the new normal has the potential to aid in the recruitment of talented individuals, assist businesses in growing and increase employees’ job-satisfaction.

Click here to read our article Future World of Work which considers the key issues for employers to think about when planning their exit strategy is in a post-furlough world.

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