Comment Writer Laura Bull discusses whether flexible working will become the new norm following the Coronavirus pandemic and its potential benefits and challenges
The UK’s current guideline for employees and coronavirus is to ‘work from home unless it is impossible to do so’. Flexible working not only includes working from home but also having flexible working hours and part time work. Flexible working may become the new norm once the pandemic is over, but it does come with challenges.
Firstly, flexible working is not possible in all sectors. Since 2014, all UK employees have the right to request flexible working hours. However, this does not include working from home which for some sectors such as public services, retail and manufacturing is not possible. In 2019, 8.7 million people reported working from home. This number has been increasing over the past few years but does not and cannot include all sectors.
Workers may become isolated and lonely if they adopt flexible working. Working from home, working part time and working unusual hours will all reduce the amount of contact employees have with their colleagues. At the time of writing this article, we have only been social distancing for two weeks and yet there have already been reports of people experiencing loneliness with a subsequent toll on their well-being. If this becomes the new norm, the impact on people’s well-being is likely to be profound and more damaging.
It may also be difficult to separate home and work life when it takes place in the same space. It will require more motivation and self-control to stay on top of all the work. The temptation to lounge around in PJs all day would be great, and certainly for some this might result in a deterioration of well-being. The problems of working from home with children are being increasingly documented across social media. Famously, Robert Kelly had his kids interrupt his interview live on air with the BBC in 2017, much to everyone’s amusement at the time, but now many more parents risk similar embarrassments, albeit to smaller audiences!
There is also a concern that employees will be unable to maintain their normal productivity levels when working from home, given that there are so many potential distractions. Another detrimental effect of flexible working which can impinge productivity is a potential deterioration in communication. Additionally, employees may struggle to get used to flexible working as a new working method. Habits can be hard to break!
Whilst there are numerous challenges to flexible working, the benefits have the potential to outweigh them. For example, more flexible working improves diversity as it facilitates the engagement of those who can only work certain hours or those who cannot get to the office but can still work at home. Also, some studies have shown that employees are happier with flexible working as they can have a better work-life balance. People will be able to work at times that better suit them, whether that is at home or at work. Employees who work from home or work part time can save time and money on their commute. This not only benefits the employee, but the environment as well. For example, air pollution has started to fall in UK cities as less transport is being used during the pandemic. Additionally, those who are parents or carers are better able to balance looking after those who need them whilst still working. Whether employees have flexible working hours, work part time or work from home, their work-life balance will be much improved.
The importance of technology can really be seen in this pandemic, with platforms such as Zoom making working from home a lot easier. The video conferencing company’s share price has soared since the start of the pandemic, up 107% since January! Not only do improvements in technology help with communication to undertake work, but they also allow people to stay connected which in turn improves their well-being.
I study Political Science and International Relations, and with only nine contact hours a week, I am required to undertake a significant proportion of my work from home. This should mean the progression to working from home after university would not be new to me, along with many other Arts students. However, students with more contact hours may struggle initially to make the transition to working more from home. I know from my own experience that the change from full days at school to coming to university where I work primarily from home was initially a huge challenge. It does require more self-motivation and working at strange hours seems to become the new norm! Despite this, everyone adapts, and I am sure with time, people will embrace an increase in flexible working.
Whether the increase in working from home due to coronavirus will change the workplace forever is yet to be seen. Flexible working may become the new norm, or people may want to turn back the clock to a time before the pandemic. There may be a backlash, with people desperate to finally break out of their claustrophobic homes at the end of the outbreak, rushing to go back to work in the office. No matter the outcome, although flexible working does bring challenges, there is no doubt the benefits can be profound!
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