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Ian MacArthur

Sam Booth

Post-Lockdown Learnings for Employers – in this episode we speak to Sam Booth, Chief Executive of business community organisation Pro-Manchester. We look at both the employment challenges of Covid-19, but also the key lessons that will ensure organisations don’t return to ‘old’ ways of working.
Listen for Chatter about Sam Booth’s first experience of employment, her top tips for employers moving forward, and her key pitfalls to watch out for when organising a return to the workplace.

"It would be an absolute travesty if we went back to the way that we were before, this is a really pivotal moment, a real opportunity for us to reset"

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No one would argue that the last eighteen months have been a straightforward example of flexible working in action; it was more like a global experiment on how to cope when work and home collide. But nonetheless, the pandemic-driven shift towards different working patterns has bust some long-held myths about what can and can’t be done flexibly, and created some much-needed evidence about how to support and manage staff to do their best work.

Now, as we (hopefully) begin to emerge from this difficult time, forward-looking employers are ignoring the view that we can go back to the ‘old normal’, and are instead using the pandemic as a springboard to create better, fairer, more inclusive and more productive workplaces. And building on what we’ve learned so far is a great place to start.


Positive lessons from lockdown

While the lockdowns were tough, they have inspired a number of positive shifts in attitudes towards flexible working:

  • Reasons to say no have been shown to be invalid. For example, that some jobs are simply incompatible with flexible working (lawyers and bankers have all been able to work remotely). Or that people can’t be trusted to work at home (71% of employers surveyed by CIPD said productivity has gone up or stayed the same). Or that teams need to be in the same place to collaborate (virtual meetings have been shown to be effective and, some claim, more efficient).
  • Leaders’ and managers’ understanding of employees lives has increased. The explosion in home working brought people’s home lives into the open, providing real insights for managers who didn’t know about their team members’ other responsibilities. And both sides reported that employees felt more supported as a result.
  • The demand for flexible working is universal, and no longer in doubt. Survey after survey has indicated that the vast majority of people now want to work flexibly, for a variety of reasons, not just childcare. As a result, it’s becoming as less of a ‘mum’ issue and more universally accepted.
  • The business case for flexible working has become clearer. As a result of all the above, employers are grasping the benefits to their business of offering more flexibility. These include access to a wider talent pool – both geographically, and inclusive of those who need flex to work – and the potential to reduce business overheads. The increased ability to retain valued staff is particularly pertinent, given suggestions of a looming ‘Great Resignation’.


Potential issues to watch out for

The knock-on effect of all of this is that many business leaders are seeking to evolve their lockdown practices into a hybrid model. And while this is brilliant news for those of us who are firm believers in flexible working, there are some potential challenges that need to be taken into account:

  • Sticking with practices developed during lockdown isn’t sustainable. In 2020, flexible working was introduced at speed and delivered under pressure, rather than being strategically designed. The next evolution needs to be carefully planned.
  • Connectivity can be more difficult in a hybrid set up. Without excellent communication and support, there’s a risk that employees can feel disconnected from each other, and struggle to collaborate effectively. This is a particular concern for junior employees and new starters.
  • Wellbeing can suffer if not directly supported. Although some elements of hybrid working can really benefit wellbeing (such as a reduced commute, which in turn tends to mean more time to spend with family or on self-care), there are also issues such as work creep (which increased during lockdown) and isolation for those living alone.
  • Fairness, inclusion and diversity must be considered. There’s a risk of office in-crowds developing, made up of those who aren’t parents, or introverts, or who don’t have health issues. There’s also a danger that the workforce will be divided into flex haves and have-nots, with those in frontline roles, which are harder to make flexible, being left behind.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the pandemic has disproportionately affected employment opportunities for certain groups – including women, younger people and minority ethnic employees. So ensuring that the specific challenges which relate to these groups are considered and overcome will be a key part of the workplace evolution.


How to take these learnings forward

So what’s the best way to build on these learnings, and create better, fairer more flexible workplaces? I believe there are four key principles that will support employers to achieve this:

  • Proactive leadership is essential. Organisations need to have a clear vision in place, based on desired outcomes for employees, clients, customers, and real estate. This needs to be underpinned by a culture shift from a reactive response (waiting to be asked) to a proactive one (understanding what people need and offering it). All of which needs to be championed and role-modelled from the top.
  • Trust is a non-negotiable. Leaders need to trust their line managers to find mutually beneficial flexible working solutions, and to deliver them successfully. And line managers need to trust their team members to get their work done when they’re not visible. Two things that will massively support this are (1) line manager training, to upskill them in flexible job design and flexible team management, and (2) beyond excellent communication.
  • An outcomes-based mindset will unlock flexible potential. Designing proper flexible jobs (rather than just dishing out a laptop and a Zoom account) takes time, and there is lots to consider. Which teams and groups of people need to be together? How often, and for what kind of tasks? What’s the best forum for formal collaboration, and how can informal opportunities be encouraged? This isn’t instinctive, and needs to be taught; we can help.
  • Yogurt and fruit are no substitute for people-focused policies. Making sure that your flexible working strategy is inclusive and fair; ensuring that staff wellbeing is prioritised and their individual circumstances are taken into account; offering some kind of flexibility to all staff, rather than just those in office-based roles… a people-focused approach will ensure that your newly-evolved workplace delivers for staff, which in turn will deliver for your business.


My challenge to Greater Manchester employers

And there’s a critical additional step; offering all of the above to candidates as well as existing employees. Despite the huge demand for flexible working, only 2 in 10 jobs are advertised as flexible, which is keeping large numbers of people out of the workplace, or trapped in low paid, unskilled jobs. And yet a recent report by REC notes that while the jobs market is picking up, the supply of candidates is falling markedly.

So my challenge to those of you who are engaging with the Good Employment Charter is to offer your flexible and hybrid roles at the point of hire. It’s a win-win-win, which will give businesses access to talent, candidates access to the flex they need, and Greater Manchester’s economic recovery a well-timed boost.

Written 30 June 2021

Emma Stewart MBE

Emma Stewart MBE is the Development Director, and co-founder, for Timewise. She also works on their sister organisation, Women Like Us, and has been co-CEO and more recently CEO since the start of 2021.

Timewise are an organisation which tackle the lack of quality part-time jobs, and promote the potential for more widespread flexible working options. They are called upon by policymakers and businesses to shape flexible working policy and practice.