Flexible working during COVID-19: What managers are saying

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Flexible working should be more widely available to fathers and people without children. So concludes a significant new research project into how managers have dealt with the change in working practices and working culture during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flexible working during COVID-19. Image of a man working from home.
What exactly do managers think of the mass flexible working experiment that’s taken place in 2020? We now have answers!

In addition to keeping in mind fathers and the child free want to work flexibly, employers need to ensure managers have training in flexible, remote working. Employment laws should also be reviewed and updated and tax breaks should be offered for home offices.

These changes are necessary because “The flexible working genie is out of the bottle.” That dramatic quote comes from Dr Heejung Chung of the University of Kent and I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone. By now we all know the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a rapid shift in working culture.

Even so, much of the discussion about the impact of this shift has focused on operational staff, in particular parents and how they balance work and family life. A new study, however, has shone a light on what managers think of the new flexible and home working phenomena.  You might be surprised at what the study found (Hint: It bodes well for anyone who has caring responsibilities).

The thoughts and concerns of managers have been on my mind since the Government gave the order for mass homeworking back in March of this year. I’m personally all for flexible and remote working, but what’s happened because of COVID-19 is a huge experiment. I’m not sure anyone foresaw a time when the entire workforce would be told to work from home wherever possible on the orders of the Government.

While there’s a lot to do to achieve true gender equality in the home or workplace, various studies have shown that under lockdown conditions, men have been getting more involved with family life. The Fatherhood Institute has gone so far as to state the amount of unpaid childcare done by men has increased by 58% since March.

With data showing such great strides have been achieved, it would have been a huge blow if managers reported widespread falls in productivity. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and University of Kent have been carried out a detailed study of what managers’ think of flexible working. From late July to mid-August they spoke to 742 managers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Here are a few highlights from the Managing Employees Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, Flexible working and the future of work study:

  • Before the Coronavris pandemic, 57% of managers said that to advance in an organisation, you had to be “physically present” in a workplace. That figure now stands at 38%
  • Senior, middle and line managers all said working from home and flexible working was a way to enhance performance and also a way to diversify the workforce (IE jobs would appal to mums, dads, anyone with a caring responsibilities, those with disabilities etc).
  • In future, 74% of managers will support home working applications and a similar number will support flexible working requests.

This brings us on to the productivity issue. I was nervous about what this research was going to unearth. If managers claimed productivity had tanked as a result of mass flexible working, it would put a flexi-working advocate such as myself in a very difficult position.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of managers said this kind of working improved productivity. Post pandemic, that figure has increased to 58%. There’s also very little evidence to suggest staff have been getting lazy simply because they are working from home.Where performance issues were identified, they more often than not existed prior to the pandemic.

I won’t deny it, I was surprised by this. I thought productivity may have stayed about the same or increased a little. I didn’t expect a leap of that size. It’s further evidence the old job model, where presenteeism was expected and you worked nine to five, Monday to Friday in a workplace miles from home, has had its day.

With that all said, let’s quickly address the ‘dad issue.’ Interestingly, the researchers found that men with children had twice as much contact from their manager as women with children. This suggests a certain amount of unconscious bias: Many managers are simply assuming female staff with kids should not be disturbed because they’ll either be busy with work or childcare.

It’s such attitudes that explain why dads have a tougher time having their requests for flexible working being approved. Times need to change, hence why the study has concluded managers need to keep fathers and the child free in mind when promoting flexible working.

This study has also found managers and employers are facing some specific challenges while overseeing mass flexible working during COVID-19. One issue is training. Managers are having to manage teams who are in different locations and rarely seeing each other. That requires different skill sets and employers need to be aware of this.

Probably the biggest issue is staff welfare. Almost 59% of managers reported having concerns about staff being isolated compared to nearly 57% before lockdown. Many employers have taken steps to address this by providing counsellors to staff or guidance about wellbeing.

Some staff, however, just don’t like working from home at all. For staff living in shared accommodation or other similar situations, working from home simply might not be an option and so managers need to keep this in mind.

I felt this research was incredibly valuable. The thoughts and opinions of managers have thus far been overlooked. While challenges and issues were identified, I was very pleasantly surprised at how positively managers have viewed the remote, flexible approach.

It’s a shame that bias about men’s and women’s roles as carers still exists. By highlighting it in the, however, we’ll hopefully see change in the future.

If you have an experience of flexible working during COVID-19 that you’d like to share, please do leave a comment below. If you are a manager, I’d be particularly keen to hear what you have to say. It would be great to hear your opinions.

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