Whether you’re still working from home, have made a tentative return to the office, or are sitting this whole thing out for now, it’s safe to say that the standard working day may never look the same again. Experts predict flexible working will be the new normal once workers are permitted to return to the office properly, and in truth, some businesses may not have an option other than to introduce agile working policies in the future. 

But those who adapt in business so often prosper. So instead of viewing this as a fatal blow to your profit margins, instead embrace the introduction of flexible working as an opportunity to advance company culture, better employee contentment and generally foster a happier, healthier working environment. Here’s how; our 5 ways to encourage a productive flexible working environment.

EMBRACE THE CHANGE

UK employees have a statutory right to request flexible working. However, the Office for National Statistics reports that before coronavirus, only 1.7m people from a workforce of 32.6m worked from home. That’s just 5%. Indeed, the number of UK businesses offering employees the opportunity of remote working is also low; less than 3 in 10. 

Remote working during lockdown has given both employers and employees the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of telecommuting, or remote working full-time, and adapt and diversify their practices to fit in with this. By recognising that much of the hard work has now already been done – in setting up the systems, communication channels and structures – to encourage remote working, businesses should embrace the positive change this flexi working can bring.

Documented benefits of remote working include reduced time and expense commuting, better time management, improved morale and a decrease in tardiness. Since you’ve now completed most of the groundwork in shifting your company to remote working, it would be folly to return to old practices once this thing’s all over.

ENSURE YOUR OFFICE IS SAFE

That said, there will, of course, sometimes be times when employees will have to be physically present at the office. Without clear and concise government guidelines on what a ‘covid-secure workplace’ should look like, businesses are having to exercise a fair amount of that infamous common sense to adapt.

Suggestions within business communities for safer office work include clear and strict adherence to existing social distancing rules and maintaining strict hygiene measures by hiring extra cleaning staff. In workplaces where keeping 2m apart is difficult, businesses are being asked to install personal protective equipment including desk shields and hand sanitising gel at all desks as standard, with hotdesking banned.

Responsible employers will also need to be particularly diligent with staff rotation and shift work. The number of staff in the office at any given time should be kept to a minimum, and shift work generally discouraged, since this makes an outbreak of covid-19 at work much harder to isolate and cover for.

DON’T RENEGE ON EMPLOYEE PROMISES

As a responsible employer, it’s your duty to ensure that positive practices fostered in the workplace aren’t forgotten about because your staff are now working flexibly or remotely. As such, do endeavour to make sure your colleagues have everything they need to complete their tasks efficiently from home. If your office’s work was largely computer based (that’s all of them, then), don’t just assume all workers will have laptops. You may well have to provide them. 

Also consider providing stationary and other office supplies. It would be unfair to place the financial burden onto your staff to buy these items which were previously provided by the company.

Go beyond the basics as a responsible employer. If your company offered childcare during office hours, for instance, then just because staff are working from home doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t offer support in this area. Finally, should your company have previously provided mental health support, advice and counselling within office hours, make sure there’s still such a provision in place. Your business’s responsibility to employee welfare should not slip just because the physical workplace has dispersed.

KEEP A CULTURE OF PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT ALIVE

We think it’s fair for workers to be concerned that the shift to ‘working from home’ puts company sponsored professional development at risk. Because personal development, such as inhouse training, night classes funded by the employer, team building excursions and even taking time out to be socially responsible (volunteering for a charity, perhaps), so often occurs under the jurisdiction of the office, there is a danger that it might be sidelined as companies streamline their offering in adjustment to covid-19.

It’s vital that as a responsible employer you continue to nurture any employee’s development, particularly with regard to mentoring. Although face-to-face interaction is inevitably going to be lessened with flexible working becoming the new normal, mentoring, sponsorship and scholarship programmes should be continued, for the benefit of both the employee and the company as a whole. 

If an employer encourages, verbally and even financially, their staff to develop themselves personally and professionally, then the outcome is often a workforce able to perform productively without constant monitoring and management. And boosting that sense of independence and autonomy is going to be so integral in the coming months, with so many flexi working.

SET RULES REGARDING WORK & HOME LIFE DISTINCTIONS

It might seem counterintuitive to set in stone company policy about not working, but it’s crucial that you do just that, in order to anticipate that unique sense of stress and inability to ‘turn off’ which flexi working can harbour. Indeed, there’s a risk that the increase in remote working will make striking the right balance between work and ‘life’ tougher than ever.

Consider making the setting of an out of office reply from 6pm until the next morning mandatory across the company, to discourage overworking in the evening. Also implement email and zoom call amnesties to allow for breaks throughout the day; at the very least, employ one for a morning, lunch, and afternoon break. Of course, setting these rules will depend on the unique circumstances of the company and its individual roles, but it is essential that the boundaries between work and home are respected.