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After WFH, Bring On Flexible Work Hours

After WFH, Bring On Flexible Work Hours

Thursday, 15 April, 2021 - 04:00

The pandemic forced employers to embrace flexibility in working location, but a related concept — flexibility of working hours — is far from being the norm. As big firms encourage staff back to the office, pressure for adjustable work schedules could mount.

Many bosses want staff back on site, and many employees will want to return. The benefits of easier collaboration, social stimulation, cultural cohesion and osmotic knowledge-sharing have been well aired. Much activity in financial and professional services can be done remotely, but is better accomplished face-to-face.

The main tangible benefit of remote working may be freeing time and money spent commuting — the time often given to the employer. But this hasn’t been the only upside to working from home for the employee. A report by UK personnel body CIPD found that the second most-cited benefit of remote-working during lockdown was greater flexibility of hours. No one had to know when you put a task on hold to deal with family, go for a run or chop vegetables for dinner. Staff may fight to retain that freedom or, if their role cannot be performed off-site, seek to gain it.

A YouGov survey of the UK workforce found significant unmet employee demand for flexible workday arrangements. Roughly 40% of respondents said they would choose flextime (also called flexitime) or part-time working, but only around 20% had such options available. Meanwhile, 19% wanted what’s called compressed hours (squeezing the working week into fewer but longer or more productive days) while only 3% said they had the choice.

At issue is the reality is that people have non-work commitments. And employers have an interest in accommodating them as they look to restore normality after workers have proved an ability to be highly productive in very difficult circumstances. For parents, the big stressors are that the school day is shorter than the work day and school vacations are longer than annual leave. That creates childcare conflicts that stretch out for years beyond firms’ parental leave policies for looking after newborns. Women’s careers have borne the brunt of this problem.

Staff with responsibilities caring for elderly relatives may face workday conflicts too, and others may have their own regular health-care appointments. Then there are commitments to fitness or other activities that support general wellbeing. Millennials and boomers may equally value flexible hours for different reasons.

Some employers reckon that making allowances for this can be a recruitment and retention tool. The UK arm of auditor PwC last month unveiled its “Deal” for staff. Employees will be able to decide start and finish times. The firm expects them to “spend an average of 40-60% of their time co-located with colleagues, either in our office or at client sites.” Office space is not being shrunk; the shared space remains integral to the model.

PwC’s initiative trusts people to get the work done without privileging any one group: A parent could leave the office to pick up a child from school every day and WFH during school holidays, while another colleague could spend chunks of time out of conventional office hours attending gym classes. In theory, PwC is enabling early birds to front-load their days and night owls to back-load them. Replicating this model in all service businesses involving high levels of teamwork looks challenging, especially when client demands tend to be immediate.

Variable hours also require some slack in the day. Whether that’s ever really the case in “always on” jobs is questionable. So a negotiation about flexible hours automatically becomes one about quantum numbers of hours, although that’s less of a taboo following complaints aired recently by juniors at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

PwC says the arrangement has been established in consultation with the workforce, whose average age is 31, and with clients. Might the pandemic have broken the link between fees and face-time? We’ll see. The auditor’s policy of flexibility will surely have to bend to inflexible business demands at times. Still, the focus on when, rather than where, people are productive could help advance equality and workplace fairness as the great WFH experiment comes to an end.


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