Many organisations are talking about enabling more flexible working as lockdown is relaxing and that’s brilliant. We don’t want to go back to the days when most people who worked in offices were required to be there from 9am until 6pm every week day.
Flexibility is great, it allows people to start earlier or finish later to suit their preferences and responsibilities, it allows for part time or condensed hours, it allows people to schedule medical appointments without having to take time off in the middle of the day, it allows people to work from home if they want, maybe every day, perhaps once a week or perhaps while they wait for a plumber to turn up, or for a morning if they have an afternoon meeting that’s closer to home than it is to the office.
It’s also understandable that as lockdown eases, people want to work from home as they have legitimate concerns about working in a crowded office or taking long journeys in crowded public transport where the ‘mandatory’ rule about mask wearing isn’t enforced and therefore isn’t obeyed.
As a freelancer, I work (in normal times) in a variety of places, sometimes outdoors, sometimes indoors, but always my home is my office base and I am used to that and happy with it (though I prefer face to face working with students or colleagues.)
However, not everyone can work from home and statements about flexible working can become virtue signalling from companies that actually want everyone to work from home so they can save on office costs. My partner works for an organisation that used to be very averse to flexible working, requiring everyone to be in the office every day unless they had meetings out of the office. Now, however, the same organisation seem to want to push everyone to work from home all the time. My partner however is looking forward to returning to the office and we don’t have enough space in the flat to both work comfortably at home full time.
This new commitment to flexibility is tied to the organisation’s desire to cut costs and doesn’t necessarily help employees:
1. Some people’s homes aren’t ideal for working in:
You may be sitting at the kitchen table with a laptop balanced on top of a cardboard box or on the sofa with your laptop on your knees. You may be trying to balance working with educating your children. You may be trying to do your job in one corner of the room, while your partner is trying to do their job in the other corner of the room.
2. It’s important to realise too that working in an office does have benefits:
a) the ability to interact with colleagues more effectively, it allows for conversations in passing, whether that’s a nice social break or an interesting insight into a work project. It allows for the development of a corporate culture (for good or bad!) and effective team working.
b) an effective separation between work and home, which many people find really valuable, if the commute isn’t too long.
Yes, there are times when video conferences are very useful (if people are scattered geographically) but for many people they are more tiring and less effective than face to face meetings.
It's also worth considering that the much vaunted environmental benefits of mass home working aren't as clear cut as many commentators seem to think. Yes, if everyone worked from home then there would be fewer vehicles on the roads and less air pollution and less fuel used. However, if everyone's working from home then it's likely that everyone will be given their own printer/scanner/photocopier rather than sharing the office equipment and lots of individual homes will likely be lit up and heated or air conditioned all day rather than just the offices.
As we move into the new normal that lies beyond the COVID_19 pandemic we need to offer better working conditions to everyone and that means that flexible working should allow employees to work as they want to, as long as they are able to do the job they are paid to do. So it should be equally fine for people who can’t or don’t want to be in the office to work from home with good video links to their colleagues, but it should also be fine for people to work in the office except for the occasional bit of homeworking if they need to wait in for a plumber. Plus, people should be supported in their choices, whether that’s by supplying them with the required technology to effectively do their job from home or by ensuring that the office is a safe place to work – regularly deep cleaned and provided with the necessary protective equipment, good ventilation and social distancing.
A version of this article first appeared here on Pendemic.