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Flexible working should be here to stay – the impact of COVID-19 on policy

Written by Jamie Mackenzie on Monday, 22 June 2020. Posted in HR, People

The four-day working week is not really a new idea. It’s been floating around in the background for a while, with periodic calls for its widespread implementation.

Flexible working should be here to stay – the impact of COVID-19 on policy

The four-day working week is not really a new idea. It’s been floating around in the background for a while, with periodic calls for its widespread implementation. The Labour Party even made it an election promise during its 2019 campaign. Leaving the economic arguments out of it, it was a policy that had considerable support from the workforce generally – who wouldn’t want a permanent three-day weekend?!

Of course there are some practicalities to consider, but lots of evidence suggests that flexible working and shorter weeks do work when it comes to employee engagement and happiness.

Why now?

It’s fair to say that the current COVID-19 crisis has caused a new shift in the way many businesses work. In the biggest ever flexible working experiment, it took typically office-bound workforces and forced the introduction of remote working. Companies that already had flexible or ‘work from home’ policies in place before the pandemic inevitably adapted more quickly, but it wasn’t too long before all those that can work from home were doing so.

As we all went into lockdown to protect the most vulnerable, many of us experienced a complete change in circumstances. With schools and nurseries closed, many were trying to work from home whilst trying to care for young children or other family members. Companies had no choice but to be flexible to accommodate the pressures staff found themselves under. Most responded to this well, recognising that as long as the work gets done, staff needed to have the freedom to work around their other commitments rather than work 9-5, and there’s no real reason why this shouldn’t continue.

Before now, the reluctance to introduce this style of flexible working was probably down to a concerns around a productivity dip. Bosses might have been worried that either flexible working didn’t really amount to a productive business. However, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. One New Zealand based company tested the policy after it estimated that employees were only productive for three hours a day. It figured staff might be more focussed and more productive if they had an extra day off per week, and they were right: employees were happier, healthier, and their productivity didn’t drop.

But with the pandemic giving everyone little choice in the matter, we’ve now proved what the theoretical evidence has always suggested: it does work, people generally feel more productive and it really has been a lifeline to employees and businesses trying to navigate the current crisis.

Prioritise mental health

So, we’ve proven it works, but the benefits of a four-day week or flexible hours go well beyond the practicality of trying to keep things going during a crisis. For starters, it has a huge positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, especially as we start to emerge from lockdown.

The pandemic is likely to change the way we all think about our health, and we won’t just snap back to ‘normal’ life. Staff might well feel anxious about a return to the office, especially if the commute involves public transport. Maintaining an element of flexibility means staff can come in that little bit later to avoid rush hour, or even keep working from home if they don’t need to be in the office.

And mental health isn’t all about the short-term either. There is also a well-versed argument that all forms of flexible working are good for staff mental wellbeing in the longer-term too. With a working life that fits more around them or giving them an extended weekend, staff have more time to rest, switch off and gain some perspective. This means that when they’re at work, they’ll be more focussed and more productive.

Twitter, for example, has made its policy that workers can ‘work from home forever’ if they wish, whilst others have kick-started a four-day week to help staff switch off during the COVID-19 crisis. Companies who have introduced this policy have already seen the results, so there’s little reason why it wouldn’t continue post pandemic.

Challenges

The good news is most companies have now trialled remote and flexible working on a large scale, so they already have the infrastructure in place. Just like anything else in the workplace, it’s really hard to find a way that suits everyone. Different people will have different needs, but the key is in the name – flexibility.

There are some things that need thinking about ahead of time. Employers will have to strategise to stop the remaining workdays from becoming too pressurised, so that there’s actually a marked improvement to employee wellbeing. There’s little point having a four-day working week if staff are under huge pressure to get five days’ worth done - this simply won’t achieve the desired effect.

There is a lot to consider before making any long-term policy changes. The four-day working week might look different to different people – some might like shorter hours across five days whilst some might prefer an extra day off or to work the exact hours that suit them. As long as employers create a clear path and communicate well with staff from the very start, there really is no reason why flexible working can’t be here to stay.

About the Author

Jamie Mackenzie

Jamie Mackenzie

Jamie has been with Sodexo Engage since 2013 and is responsible for the company strategy, proposition development, brand management and communications. He brings over 13 years of business and consumer marketing experience in senior roles within blue chip organisations. Jamie is also an advocate for diversity and inclusion at work and has spoken frequently about the ways to create a positive workplace culture.

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