True flexibility is about how people work, not just where

Employers must avoid measures that give the illusion of flexible working while still requiring staff to consistently put in long hours and be responsive at irregular times – otherwise parents and carers risk missing out on the benefits of remote working, a new report warns.

Employee research and advisory agency Karian and Box and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London surveyed 254 organisations. They found that while 90% said they’d increased support for home-working since the start of the pandemic, and 97% are planning to adopt a hybrid-working model in some form, more targeted measures were less common:

  • 36% of employers surveyed are actively redesigning job roles for home or hybrid-working.
  • 52% said they’d provided more support for part-time working.
  • 63% had increased support for parents and carers.
  • 77% reported doing more to help employees work flexibly.

The report warns that true flexibility is about how people work, not just where, and that home-working should therefore be seen as the beginning, not the end point, of moves towards new ways of working.

It says that without more targeted support, those who take on the bulk of the caring responsibilities among families and friends – most often women – risk seeing the boundaries between work and home life dissolve, while potentially having their workload increase because they are viewed as always being available.

Campaigner Anna Whitehouse has coined this “fake flex” – where employees work remotely but without measures to prevent them having to do more or work in ways that don’t fit around other responsibilities. Examples of this dynamic are highlighted in survey respondents’ own words in the report.

One employee said: “Whilst senior leaders make good noises about working flexibly, not expecting those with caring responsibilities to work longer hours, the reality is that the amount of work and time to complete them remains the same. So reality does not match the rhetoric.”

Another said that “lots of very unhealthy habits have cropped up” because there was now less of a distinction between work and family time.

There is a need to think more broadly about flexible working and the different forms it can take, the report says, including having predictable or set hours, working compressed hours, job-sharing, and term-time working.

But as forms of hybrid-working look to become the norm for many, the report says it is important that organisations avoid creating a “two-tier” workforce, where those who work from home more regularly are overlooked for recognition and promotions.

Previous research has shown that the career prospects of part-time workers are often more limited than their full-time counterparts, because of employers’ bias towards those who are most frequently present in the office.

And with women more likely than men to work part-time and to want to work from home post-pandemic, a two-tier workforce could undermine progress on gender equality.

The report says that to combat this, organisations should establish routines and processes to ensure that employees working from home do not miss out on exposure and informal interactions with colleagues and leaders, and to think about opportunities for face-to-face interaction where appropriate.

Jenny Hill, managing director (strategy and propositions), at Karian and Box, said:

“It’s taken a global pandemic to overcome the technological and psychological barriers to home working that were common in many organisations. But in the same way that home-schooling during the pandemic isn’t the same as home-schooling by choice, working from home due to lockdown restrictions isn’t the same as working from home by design. Now is the time for organisations to look beyond location to consider how their employees will work in the future, as well as where they will work.

“If the focus for the future of work is on location above all else, then we run the risk of not only missing the opportunity to drive progress, but we will also make workplaces even less inclusive to groups such as parents and carers.

To turn the optimism for positive change that this research found into lasting positive change it’s critical that organisations (1) consider the mental wellbeing and lived experiences of their people (2) provide a clear vision for the future (3) rethink and redesign ways of working for a post-pandemic world, with a particular focus on flexible working that enables organisations to be inclusive to individuals who may be balancing work with caring responsibilities, for example.”

Professor Rosie Campbell, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, said:

“There are real opportunities to create more inclusive workplaces as we learn the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic. The importance of care and caring has been highlighted by the central role that carers, paid and unpaid, have played in responding to the crisis. But in many sectors, job design has paid too little attention to the needs of this group, and as a result much talent is lost from the workforce.

“This is the moment to redesign work to tackle a range of problems holding back progress – from inflexible shift patterns for key workers, through to toxic, ‘always-on’ office cultures. There is a danger that the existing two-tier office workforce, where part-time workers are not promoted, will be replaced by a three-tier hierarchy between head office, hybrid and remote workers. To avoid this, employers should focus on outputs, rather than physical presence, in performance evaluations, and embrace the opportunity to consider how and where work is done to produce the best outcomes for the organisation and its employees.”