As we emerge from restrictions of the pandemic, many organisations with high levels of office-based staff are considering the extent to which they want to maintain flexibility while also bringing employees back into the workplace.
The OU’s Dr Volker Patent, a chartered psychologist and lecturer, specialises in business psychology and coaching. His research focuses on the topic of trust, particularly around HR and organisational decision-making. Dr Patent presented at the Festival of Work on Wednesday 16 June on the topic of Flexible working – Panacea or Pandemonium with accompanying resources on OpenLearn.
Below Dr Patent discusses what’s at stake in providing more flexibility in the workplace and says it’s more about creating something that is better designed and more resilient, rather than trying to replicate what has been lost or done in the past:
Will lockdown mean a big future change for office-based workers or not?
Flexible working from home is not such a new thing. Most organisations have some capacity, and flexibility is enshrined in law. Most people have experienced a huge change during the pandemic and having been told they must stay at home for a little more than a year, the move back may seem as big to some. What appears to be happening is that most companies are thinking about hybrid arrangements with some days in the office and others at home. They may operate rotas to keep the number of employees on site smaller and implement de-crowding offices.
There may be other changes such as meetings being held online only. So, in reference to the title, for most people there will be more office working than before but working from home and flexible hours will probably remain a viable option for most people.
How has the pandemic changed attitudes towards home working:
Awareness has certainly changed because most staff have now experienced it. Fears that workers will not be productive, or that lack of regularity of office hours creates problems for businesses, may seem unfounded. Overall, the public and organisations have been somewhat forgiving about service levels being lower than pre-pandemic.
On the other hand, some organisations are monitoring their employee’s activity working from home which implies a level of employers’ distrust of employees. Many people (around 45%) seem to want to continue working from home, suggesting that there is a greater recognition of the benefits of such flexibility, for example in managing out of work commitments.
Overall people’s attitudes about working from home are likely to be more favourable although there are many people who would prefer working in an office, at least some or most of the time. Most people would probably like to keep the improvements and not incur the disadvantages.
What kind of improvements?
There were many tangible and intangible benefits of the pandemic lockdown. Reduction in transport resulted in improvements in air quality. Being pushed into adapting has produced a great deal of organizational learning and innovation in how to use digital skills, to improve some aspects of organisational functioning (e.g., teleconferencing). In turn this has also driven the development of platforms such as MS Teams, Zoom and others, adding additional functionality and introducing people to new(ish) collaborative platforms such as Miro, Mentimeter and others.
Flexible working, including working from home, and flexible work patterns have known benefits such as: fitting better with lifestyles, circadian rhythms. A good work life-balance can enhance recruitment, attraction, retention, motivation, wellbeing, less sick leave. Evidence from research suggests there may even be benefits in productivity, possibly because many people are less stressed, have higher wellbeing and are more motivated.
Being able to work flexibly can mean improvements for staff with caring responsibilities. The reduction of commuting costs and time may also be a gain of four work days per month for each employee that are saved and not spent on commuting.
It’s not all good though, surely?
At the same time as we have improvements, there are also significant disadvantages. For example, maintaining work home boundaries, conflict between members of households for meeting spaces, WIFI bandwidth and effects of “cabin fever” and isolation from work relationships. When schools were closed many people especially women experienced a lot of pressure and role conflict balancing home schooling and work.
Working in an office brings advantages particularly in relation to the social connections between people in organisations that cannot be replaced via digital media including induction and socialisation of new hires. Managing people remotely is difficult especially when there are technical problems such as equipment breaking down performance management issues.
Online communications create depersonalisation effects that can impact on the quality of interactions and affect information-sharing and trust. WFH is not for everyone – negative impacts on motivation, morale and it exposes skills in gaps, that could lead to excluding workers who are less technologically savvy.
It seems like a mixed picture in regards to flexible working?
Yes. We must be careful to avoid making sweeping assumptions about how policies regarding working from home and flexibility impact on different people. While it may create new opportunities for people (for example visually impaired workers, working from home with assistive technologies) we need to ensure that their wellbeing, and social belonging are addressed – both are important for organisational productivity but also for employees themselves.
Avoiding exclusion and helping people to adjust to new working realities is a must for businesses and more broadly for policy makers. There needs to be investment to facilitate flexibility (e.g. reskilling, upskilling) that benefits all.
What are the crucial factors to achieve successful flexible working going forward?
Working from home for a continuous period for a few months may appear to be attractive. Over a longer time disadvantages may become more apparent in some instances. For a flexibility policy to work the policy itself needs to be flexible. This means it can adjust to new situations as well as respond to evidence from flexible working practices.
I favour an approach that considers the bigger picture which includes considerations regarding the future of the Earth, around environmental sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and social justice. This requires effective risk assessment and scenario planning preparing for uncertainty and disruption.
Flexible working is a series of design choices about how much flexibility to retain and the reasons why to retain. Basing these on evidence from research, from what has been learned from the pandemic and by listening to employees rather than robotically trying to return to a “Post-Covid normality”.
To help with starting some of the conversations that are needed we have been working on a resource- the Applying Psychology at work Hub which officially launches on Friday June 18 2021.
Find out More:
And read more on the topic of Flexible working – Panacea or Pandemonium
Dr Patent and colleagues at the OU are hoping to build a new network of professionals interested in applying Psychology to work, to act as a place for developing ideas, finding partners in conversation, and helping to co-create the future post-pandemic workplace.
If you are interested in being part of the conversation, and looking for ways of influencing the evolution of workplace please join this group. Join the group on Linkedin.