Coronavirus

Is the flexible working revolution really all it seems?

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Day however many hundred since that very first lockdown. Times have been pretty turbulent since March 2020, but now it seems that the UK might be turning a corner. The sun is shining (occasionally) and the pubs are open. Bit by bit, we seem to be getting back to our ‘normal’ lives.

Of course, a lot of this ‘normality’ is an illusion, wrought by the easing of harsh restrictions. The pandemic and repeated lockdowns have led to significant changes in our society that may prove difficult to reverse. Job losses, a stagnating economy, the complications of long-COVID and escalating mental health problems. Few people doubt that the pandemic has wreaked lasting havoc. 

But one thing which has been heralded as a positive change over the past year has been the (forced) advent of flexible working. With millions of employees no longer allowed in their offices, working from home became the norm for everyone who was able to do so.

Of course, compulsory remote working isn’t exactly flexible – it gives employees no choice over where they work and is especially tricky for those with limited space or who are sharing a busy household. But home working is a hallmark of a ‘flexible’ workplace – and post-pandemic many offices seem to have notions of flexibility at the forefront of their planning. 

For lots of us, this is hugely important. A workplace which allows you to come in at will and work from home when you prefer often feels progressive and accommodating. The right to choose which hours you work so that you can fit them around other commitments is also seen as a perk. A campaign launched in February is seeking to make the right to request flexible working something that all employees can do from day one in the job. Currently, an employee must have worked for an employer for 26 weeks to be eligible to make a request. 

But while the joys of flexible working have been extolled from all sides in recent months, the matter of what flexible working actually encompasses is rather more nebulous. The government’s website lists the different types of flexible working, such as part-time hours, permission to work remotely and flexible hours around a fixed ‘core’ working time. It is possible for a workplace to offer one type of flexibility, but not another. There is no requirement for an employer to honour flexible working requests, and no particular rules or provisions beyond a rather laissez-faire list of ideas that it seems workplaces can pick and choose from at will. In a way, flexible working means both everything and nothing at the same time. A handy buzzword, the framework for implementing it is vague and employees’ rights within a flexible work system are unclear.

It’s easy to think that this isn’t a problem. When flexible working seems so good, it can appear unnecessary to quibble about the finer points of the practice. 

But we know from the past year and a bit that the finer points of flexible working are exactly where the problems with it lie. 

With so many workers having had to embrace one aspect of flexible working wholesale, its pitfalls have become abundantly clear.

Research suggests that those working from home are putting in significantly longer hours. Workers are squeezing their lunch breaks and working through sickness, with many feeling obliged to be contactable at all times. Workers have expressed concerns about the toll remote working has taken on their mental health

Insofar as remote working is flexible, it seems to be a set up that demands ultimate flexibility from the employee. Instead of allowing businesses and employees to reach agreements on how work ought to be conducted, the idea of ‘flexible working’ actively discourages setting plans and putting rules in place, and that leaves employees (many of whom have been nervous about losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic) easily swayed by the whims of an employer who knows that their work laptop will never be more than three feet away. 

This isn’t to say that home-working or flexible working are inherently bad things, but that without proper frameworks in place, such types of working leave little wiggle room for employees. After all, if there are no hard and fast rules in place, there is very little an employee can be asked to do that would contravene existing frameworks. 

The same goes for flexible hours – if your boss takes Friday afternoons off but then makes up the time on Saturdays, as an employee you are highly likely to feel pressured to respond to their emails or work on Saturdays just to be in sync. And of course, say you have a medical emergency or just a routine appointment – the idea that those lost hours need to be made up in a worker’s free time is now commonplace. Flexible working sounds great, until it starts to seem like always working. 

We need to make sure that flexible working is genuinely flexible – and not just elongated. The pandemic has not been good for employee rights. In our desire to find the positives, let’s make sure we’re not championing something that will prove to be yet another erosion of our rights in a sugarcoated disguise. 

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