Tuesday 7th April 2020
In 1987 R.E.M released the song ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’, I wasn’t even born then, but I know the song and I’ve heard it playing on various radio stations more times than I can remember since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK last month. As catchy a song as it is, it got me thinking… “Could this really be the end of the world as we know it?” It’s unlikely, and from what the scientists and experts are telling us, its suggested that Coronavirus will pass in time, and the UK and the world will, eventually, recover. However, I believe that the impact that this (hopefully) short period, which will go down in history, will have on the workplace will be significant. Due to social distancing restrictions, we are now experiencing the world’s largest trial of remote working, the outcome of which may change the workplace forever. Could this be the end of the workplace as we know it?
At EA Inclusion we have been relatively fortunate in that our team already work remotely, so we have the kit and systems in place so that we have had little interruption in our day to day operations (excluding the obvious things like having to move meetings and training sessions online, and we are equipped and experienced in operating this way anyway). Perhaps almost as importantly as the technical side of things, our team are used to working from home, and have already transitioned through what can be a difficult period moving from a traditional office environment, establishing the routine, boundaries, and self-motivation that working from home requires (my colleague Abigail Roberts wrote a blog last week about what this transition has been like for her after joining our team in February - My Journey Adapting to Remote Agile Working).
On the other hand, many organisations were ill prepared for this crisis as the country entered lockdown, and as a result, have had no choice but to move their entire offices and workforces to remote working almost overnight in order to still be able to operate, and in many cases stay afloat.
Schools across the country are now closed to all children, except those of key workers, and many working parents are now having to juggle their ‘day job’ alongside looking after their children at the same time. As a result, many parents are having to change the way that they work in order to cope and achieve the productivity and output that is expected of them, flexing their time to start earlier or finish later to try and fit everything in.
In my opinion, those organisations that have truly embraced inclusion will really see the benefits of their investments during these challenging times, with inclusive leadership, flexibility, openness, trust all being vital to navigate this period for organisations of all sizes. Employees need support during these difficult times, and organisations that have established an inclusive culture are best placed to provide it to them.
The Rise of Flexible Working
In recent years, the uptake of flexible working has increased significantly due to the availability of remote technology and collaborative platforms, increased broadband and mobile internet speeds, along with evolving attitudes and legislative changes.
The ‘Right to Request Flexible Working’ was introduced in The Flexible Working Regulations 2014 and meant that employees with at least at least 26 week service could request to change the way that they work, whether that is reducing hours, changing start and finish times, compressing hours, or working remotely. Perhaps most significantly, employers became obligated to look at all flexible working requests fairly in the same way (regardless of parental or caring responsibilities) and make a justified decision within 3 months.
The benefits of flexible working for employers are well established, from increased employee engagement to better performance, and for employees a better work-life balance and improved health and wellbeing are amongst the most cited benefits. However, one thing which is often overlooked by organisations is the cost-saving that remote working can bring:
Increasing flexible working, including working from home, saved Scottish Water £350,000 a year in business travel costs alone, and helped them to win the Best Public Sector Employer category in the annual awards run by the work-life balance charity Family Friendly Scotland.
Looking at flexible working, despite these changes, according to research conducted by Flexioffices, almost one-third (31%) of UK employees still do not have the opportunity to work flexibly. Of the 69% of UK employees that do have flexible working policies within their organisations:
39% said they enjoy work more because of it
36% agreed that they are less stressed
34% stated that they are more productive
32% noted that their employer provides good perks
Looking at remote working in particular, last month City AM reported ONS statistics that showed that between 2008 and 2018:
The number of people working from home almost doubled from 884,000 to 1.54 million
The number who work across various sites but use their home as a base increased tenfold from 200,000 to 2.66 million
While both significant shifts, these still only account for a small proportion of the UK’s overall office-based workforce, which shows that there are still barriers of some sort for many, which may now be challenged when things get back to normal.
There are reasons why tech firms are allowing their usually paid for remote services (e.g. Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Meet) to be used for free during the crisis. One is that they are responsible businesses which want to support small businesses and the economy to keep moving. The other is that this is their shop window, if they can gain new users and increase market share during this period, the likelihood is that those organisations now using them will move to a more remote way of working and will continue to use these services when these free trials end in the future.
4 Ways the Coronavirus Legacy Will Change the Workplace
I strongly believe that the world’s largest trial of remote working will change the workplace as we know it, and I predict that the Coronavirus legacy will change the workplace in 4 ways:
Technology will no longer be a barrier to remote working – Technology is often cited as one of the key barriers preventing people working remotely, whether that is not having access to a laptop, or systems not allowing remote access. Those organisations that were previously reluctant to invest in these areas have now had to make changes, and they’ve had to make them fast. In future organisations should now have everything available to make flexible working more widely available when things return to normal.
Traditional attitudes to remote working will evolve – The other key barrier aside from technology preventing people working from home is the attitudes of those with traditional mindsets who are reluctant to allow or embrace flexible working. These cynics will have no other option but to undertake a more digital way of working as they are forced to work from home and manage their teams remotely, because there is no alternative. When they evolve their way of working and see the benefits of remote working for themselves and their teams, their attitudes will also evolve as they recognise what they have been missing.
Requests for flexible working will increase – Now that people who many have never considered or had the option to work flexibly/ remotely have had it thrust upon them, they will have experienced all of the benefits it brings first-hand. When things return to normal, they may wish to continue with this new way of working, and requests for flexible working will most likely increase.
Travel and meetings will reduce – At the minute, for the vast majority of us, physical face to face meetings are clearly off limits while the UK remains in lockdown. While there is no substitute for in-person engagement, many individuals and organisations who may have previously been sceptical to adopt video conferencing, are now turning to this as a comparable alternative as there is currently no other option. Moving forwards organisations and individuals may start to think twice and question the need for travel and face to face meetings in the future, especially given the potential time and costs involved.
While there is still so much uncertainty around the future post Coronavirus, it is clear that it will have a lasting impact on the world, and in my opinion, it will also have a lasting impact on the workplace. After the Coronavirus pandemic is over (and it will be over), I believe many will look back at this period as the start of the new ‘Flexible and Remote Working Revolution’.
This is the end of the workplace as we know it, and I feel fine.
- Ben Runcorn, Commercial and Marketing Manager at EA Inclusion