The pandemic is giving people what they want: flexible working

“Home office” may soon become a tautology. As millions of workers around the world were forced to work from their homes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing their jobs into their kitchens and spare rooms, the already fuzzy boundaries between home and work life further evaporated. Even now, as governments ease lockdown restrictions, it’s far from business as usual. The future of work is here, and it looks flexible.
“All signs indicate that this crisis is going to reshape the experience of work,” says Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, a US-based think tank focused on work culture. Attending a virtual meeting inside a colleague’s home, or seeing their child toddle past in the background of a Zoom call, breaks the fourth wall of the workplace. “Now that we’ve seen each other’s full lives, the case for flexible work is going to be a lot easier to make,” Schulte says.

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Since 2014, all employees in the UK who have been with their company for longer than six months have the legal right to request flexible working. While the law applies to all workers, it’s generally parents and carers who ask for either flexitime or the ability to work from home. One in three of these requests, however, is turned down, according to a 2019 poll from the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Last year, the TUC formed a coalition with other industry bodies and launched the Flex For All campaign, calling for a change in the law so that all workers would be entitled to flexible working from day one.
Schulte says the historic inertia towards remote working has been damaging. “The fact that remote working never really caught on – that it was seen as a perk or an accommodation mainly for working mothers – shows you the power of status quo bias,” she says. Despite evidence that presenteeism and rigid work hours negatively impact employee wellbeing and productivity, the perception that the best work happens in an office has prevailed.
Until now. Bosses who were once sceptical about allowing their employees to work remotely have had their hands forced – and many minds have changed. The chief executives of Barclays and WPP have both said they would like to see flexible working become the new normal. Smaller companies are also thinking along similar lines. Bernhard Niesner, CEO and co-founder of the edutech startup Busuu, says he’s now “pro-remote” since seeing how well his organisation adapted to working from home. “I was a bit afraid, but after the first couple of weeks I’ve since become more optimistic about remote working,” he says.
Nancy Rothbard, a professor at the Wharton School who studies organisational behaviour, says these U-turns are significant. “One of the biggest barriers towards remote working has always been what your direct supervisor thinks,” she says.

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But while the pandemic may be a proof point for remote or flexible working, the circumstances have been extraordinary. “Employees aren’t just working from home – they’re working from home during an unprecedented global pandemic,” says Jacinta Jiménez, a clinical psychologist and executive coach. “Those are two different things.”
The setup under lockdown, with workers based at home alongside children, family members and housemates, is untenable in the long-run. According to data from the Office of National Statistics, only 50 per cent of the UK workforce was able to work from home during the lockdown, and a study by the Resolution Foundation, a UK think tank, found that the highest-paid employees were much more likely to be able to work from home. According to the report, “less than one-in-ten of those in the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”
Workers want this to change. According to polling from global research firm Gartner, 48 per cent of employees expect to work from home post-pandemic, up from 30 per cent pre-pandemic. While mass adoption of remote working is still far off, it seems certain that the nine-to-five model is no longer fit for purpose. Rothbard expects to see this play out initially as a hybrid model, in which employees work from home a few days a week or only go into the office for specific reasons. “We will have to maintain a work-from-home setup for a while,” she says. “We’re going to have to be adaptable and have these dual modes.” She expects the adaptability companies have shown in keeping their employees safe during the pandemic will influence how businesses are run in the future.
If so, post-pandemic working life may be less about where we work and more about a cultural step-change that sees companies offering their workers a greater level of autonomy. Working parents may no longer have to seek permission before taking a morning off to attend to childcare needs, and junior employees may be able to work from home without worrying about the optics. “The modern office is rife with inefficiency,” Schulte says. “The pandemic will be an opportunity to force people to reimagine it and step outside of comfort zones.”
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