Georgia’s London-based team in an investment bank was made redundant last July. The 44-year-old, who preferred not to give her real name, had been working four and a half days a week as a business analyst since 2014. Her job hunt has been a revelation. Roles are billed as flexible, she says, but in reality, that flexibility only means remote working at a time when most white-collar workers are at home due to social distancing restrictions.
“The mention of four days is greeted with horror,” she says.
The pandemic forced many employers to switch to remote working overnight. Some have committed to long-term remote working as part of a hybrid pattern, including some time in the office.
Yet white-collar employees worry the flexibility does not go far enough. As Georgia’s job hunt shows, “flexibility” may only translate to homeworking, ignoring part-time work, compressed and annualised hours. At a time of mass job losses, many employees will feel pressure to acquiesce to employer demands.
A recent survey by Timewise, a flexible recruitment specialist, found the proportion of jobs in the UK advertised as offering flexible working rose from 17 per cent at the start of 2020, to 22 per cent after Covid disrupted work patterns. Emma Stewart, co-founder of Timewise, worries that businesses are still timid. “There’s a huge gap between crisis-driven remote working and a systemic approach to flexible working. We need to design jobs properly.”
The pandemic has conflated flexibility with homeworking, says Gemma Dale, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. She is concerned that managers will too easily blame problems — such as staff errors or the erosion of corporate culture — on remote working. This could then create the conditions for a backlash against flexible working more generally.
“Managing by keeping an eye on people is all they [some managers] know,” Ms Dale says. “We would be naive to think they have all had a revelation.” She is concerned that managers will have their views “confirmed” that people cannot work remotely.
While employees say they want a hybrid future, few managers know how to implement this. “It is easy now we are all mostly remote,” says Ms Dale. “But it will get very messy once some people are back and some are not.”
One City lawyer, who prefers not to give her name, is heartened by the direction that her firm is taking. It has decided to allow employees to work from home two days a week once the vaccine programme permits a relaxation of social distancing rules. Yet she is disappointed that the policy is still fairly rigid. “Most of us have worked from home, we’ve all ticked along. The work has still been completed. There is still an emphasis on presenteeism. There is a lot of praise when people appear on videoconference and the office is visible in the background.”
Law, she adds, is particularly slow to change. “I am sometimes shocked at the law firm that they’ve only just discovered video-conferencing tech. A lot of our associates will be very disappointed that there isn’t going to be a bigger shift towards flexible working, there’s still a thought that it isn’t real work.”
Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, a non-profit group, says if companies return to “a culture of presenteeism [it] would be a disaster for employers who want to attract and retain employees, increase their productivity, and close their gender pay gap.”
Since the pandemic started working parents, particularly mothers, have been
squeezed by the dual pressures of work and childcare. While organisations have offered paid parental leave to cope with the squeeze, some parents were reluctant to take it for fear of appearing insufficiently committed to their work.
Flexibility, it seems, is a double-edged sword. Laura Empson, director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at City’s Business School, University of London, is troubled by what the pandemic has taught us about flexibility. “We have demonstrated our ability to work at any time of the day. I don’t call that flexibility, I call it work intensification.” Efforts to deal with overwork, such as wellbeing apps or resilience training are misguided. “They are individualising the problem which is institutional.”
One London-based PR executive says that “employers have weaponised the virus . . . a lot of businesses have used this time to decrease salaries”. In her own case, the pressure to be available all the time, despite working part-time is “extreme”. “You just have to drop everything. You’re always on to a degree.”
Flexible working policies require meaningful changes by managers. In the past, employers have been guilty of “flex-washing” — meaning that a company puts a glossy spin on a job to portray itself as enlightened, particularly when it is trying to recruit more women.
One advertising executive recalls a pre-pandemic incident when she was wheeled out publicly by her former employer to demonstrate that part-time work and having small children were no barriers to promotion. The disparity between her real life and her role as poster-girl for flexibility was brought home to her on International Women’s Day when she locked herself in the toilet at a conference, overwhelmed by juggling children and work — before going on stage to extol the virtues of flexibility.
While most businesses realised the desire for flexible working during the pandemic, says Timewise’s Ms Stewart, the “risk is that they do it without fundamentally thinking through what needs to happen to equip managers to manage flexible teams and shifting work practices”. “The organisations that are doing it well have invested in the managers overseeing flexible work,” she adds. “You have to do something about it.”
Sarah Jackson, a workplace consultant, agrees, saying that the real lesson of working from home is that managers have to learn to work better. “They have to be clear about what the objectives are. This will save us from the flexibility backlash. People are expecting to work more flexibly. Next year, lazy organisations will be able to [go back to the way things were] at a time when they need to be productive.”
Louisa Symington-Mills, founder of City Parents, a networking group for working parents, says it is too early to predict post-pandemic working patterns. She anticipates the time to make longer-term plans will be when the social distancing rules relax, since it is hard for business leaders to determine which flexible work practices work while in the middle of a pandemic.
“When you’re in the thick of a crisis, it’s hard, [there’s] so much firefighting and dodging the next hurdle.”
Prof Empson adds that “people need a period of time to recover from our collective exhaustion and anxiety to take stock and separate out the broader concerns [of social distancing, health concerns]. It’s all conflated.”
The greater future challenge for employers is to enable flexibility for those jobs that cannot be done from home. “We have a lot to learn if we open our minds,” says Ms Stewart.