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23 Mar 2020 News

The Collision of Flexible Working, Workplace Wellbeing and Coronavirus: An Employment Perspective

As featured in the Scotsman


The concept of flexible working has evolved rapidly in recent years. Overwhelming demand for greater freedom around when, where and how workers and employees fulfil their roles has swept away the traditional office based, 9-to-5, five day week.

The gap between supply and demand appears to be very big; some research points towards more than 90 per cent of millennials identifying job flexibility as a priority when job hunting, with less than 10 per cent of jobs being advertised as such.

The government may well step in to try to close that gap: in July last year Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a “Ten Minute Rule” bill aimed at making flexible working the default position for all jobs, instead of individuals having to request alternative working patterns, a proposal that may translate into the new Employment Bill in some shape or form.

Workplace wellbeing is also flavour of the day. More and more employers have wellbeing strategies in place and a myriad of benefits and initiatives (covering everything from culture to management and leadership, working environments to lifestyle) are popping up in a bid to protect a business’s best asset.

If the current thinking and statistics that increased well-being equals increased productivity are to be believed, then wellbeing is a topic that’s here to stay.

It’s not only flexible working and workplace wellbeing that have recently gone viral though. The coronavirus pandemic has given way to an unpleasant new reality of travel bans, cancellation of sporting events, prohibition of mass gatherings, and freefall of markets. Some are already predicting a global recession as a result.
What’s interesting from an employment perspective is how these three areas collide.

The need to ensure it’s “business as usual” despite measures taken by governments the world over to combat the spread of coronavirus has forced many employers into implementing remote or home working capabilities to the extent possible, whether they wanted to or not. This brings its own challenges (not least around GDPR and cyber security) but also opportunity to test a business’s capability to go fully remote and ultimately close the gap mentioned above.

But remote working isn’t a possibility for many. For those, flexibility can be delivered in other ways. Temporarily agreeing short periods of reduced hours, compressed hours, unpaid leave, or changes in duties could keep some staff in employment. There may even be opportunity to consider secondments and sabbaticals. Whilst redundancies are regrettably inevitable in times like these, advance planning and early action may allow staff to be retained.

And current cashflow difficulties needn’t preclude staff wellbeing; if anything it should become a priority. Stress and anxiety is rife. Employees who are unwell may nevertheless come to work if they cannot afford to live on statutory sick pay or are concerned about job security. Long term remote working could have damaging effects on team work and morale or worse still, mental and physical health, particularly for those self-isolating. In circumstances such as these, rehearsing the terms of a sick pay policy to individuals is likely not going to cut it.

Recognising that people are worried about their family, health and livelihood through open and honest consultation costs nothing and can go a long way. Employees working remotely should be trusted to do just that. Thought should be afforded to those employees for whom work provides their only social interaction.

In these uncertain and worrying times, the cash-flow squeeze will likely only get worse and very many businesses are or very soon will be in crisis. Staff should however be at the heart of a business’s survival strategy. At worst, unemployment can be reduced or delayed. At best, employers can learn just how flexible they can be, and of the value of genuinely looking after their staff.

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