Long Term Flexible Working during COVID-19

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a significant amount of the workforce working from home. Many employees necessarily worked more flexible hours or days, often to balance work and other responsibilities, such as home schooling or childcare.

Remote or homeworking is just one form of flexible working – there are many. But the type of homeworking recently experienced is unusual.

As an employer, following this period of enforced homeworking, do review the many potential benefits for your business and your employees. Research and strong evidence indicate that flexibility can support inclusion, help to reduce the gender pay gap, support sustainability initiatives, attract and retain talented individuals, increase productivity and support wellbeing.

Prior to the pandemic, flexible working uptake was slow. Now, indications show that many employees wish to continue some degree of homeworking (or flexible working in general).

This guide considers how flexible working may be approached in the long-term to support health and safety obligations to employees returning to the workplace. It also indicates the potential people benefits and opportunities for your organisation following the pandemic.

My July 2020 newsletter talks about the more short-term aspects of dealing with flexible working, including the importance of regular communications to all employees, training and guidance for managers, addressing employee needs, and more. You can read that here.

Flexible Working – Longer Term Considerations

Your employees are now aware of how effectively they can work from home having learned the technology to do so. They may have personally benefited from working from home, perhaps through reduced commuting time (and associated costs) and an improved work-life balance.

Although no timescales are yet in place, the Government intends to introduce legislation to support ‘flexible working by default’. Currently, you could still turn down flexible working requests where there is an operational reason for doing so. But this change in legislation will raise awareness of flexible working in general. So, be prepared for an increase in flexible working requests both because of the pandemic and, if more information becomes available, for legislative changes. Be aware that if you cannot fulfil demand, it may impact employee engagement and retention.

By recognising flexible working as an opportunity, you can harness many business and employee benefits, including increased productivity, workplace inclusion, talent acquisition, employee wellbeing and sustainability. To realise this opportunity, there are some key areas to consider.

Making Flexible Working Work

Current circumstances provide an opportunity to learn from employee experiences of recent months and review your flexible working approach. Consider undertaking a listening exercise to understand:

  1. What challenges have employees experienced while working remotely and flexibly?
  2. What benefits have they experienced?
  3. What impact have these changes had on their lives?
  4. What aspects of working remotely do employees wish to retain and what are they keen to lose?

The information gathered can help you determine your longer-term strategy for flexible working. To improve your approach, there are three initial areas to focus on:

  1. Organisational culture
  2. Policy
  3. Manager training

Organisational Culture

Organisational culture can be resistant to change. Building a flexible long-term culture is a journey rather than a sprint. Unfortunately, there can be negative stereotypes associated with flexible workers with suggestions that they are often less committed, cause increased work for others and are more difficult to manage. Some organisational cultures, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, did not lend themselves to flexible working – many organisations (and people managers) judge people on their presence in the workplace. Others prefer face to face meetings or had not adopted the technology to enable flexibility.

Some barriers to flexible working, both cultural and practical, have been challenged by the recent months of homeworking. However, some will remain. You will need to consider how to create a culture in your organisation for flexible working to thrive.

The following elements of culture and activities are typically present in organisations where flexible working works well:

  1. High trust
  2. Performance judged on outcomes rather than presence and availability
  3. A range of flexible working options
  4. Effective communication of flexible working opportunities and ongoing awareness raising activities
  5. Flexible working available for all employee groups in principle regardless of job role. Each request is considered on its own merits
  6. Supportive senior leaders including visible role models
  7. Jobs advertised as suitable for flexible working
  8. Consistent application of policy – e.g. ensuring all departments take a similar decision-making approach 
  9. A high level of understanding across the organisation of the benefits of flexible working

Changing culture means changing attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. This is not necessarily a quick process and will require consistent effort.


Any change of approach to flexible working (in the short- or long-term) may require a policy review. Where the policy follows statutory procedures only, the full benefits of flexible working may not be realised. For example, the law only permits employees to request flexible working formally after being employed for 26 weeks. This may discourage employees from applying for a role with a new organisation. Proposed legislative changes around ‘flex for all’ could result in this requirement being removed.

Policy changes that support flexible working include:

  1. Allowing flexible working requests from ‘day one’ of employment
  2. Advertising all roles as open to applications for flexible working
  3. A simple application process that does not require employees to specify why they want to work flexibly
  4. Automatic consideration of transferring existing flexible working arrangements to internal promotions / job role changes
  5. Short timescales for considering a request

Manager Training

Providing training to people managers on the benefits of flexible working and how to manage flexible workers is one of the most effective ways to increase the quality and quantity of flexible working arrangements and supports the transition to a more flexible future.

Managers hold the key to flexible working: they are either an enabler and supporter, or a barrier to effective implementation.

Practical aspects of people manager training should include:

  1. An overview of the relevant employment law relating to flexible working
  2. The organisation’s own policy on flexible working
  3. The application process and the line manager’s specific responsibilities within that process
  4. How to assess a job for flexible working potential
  5. The business case for flexible working and why it is so important

Manager training can be complemented with practical tools such as ‘how to’ guides, case studies, process maps and standard forms.

However, simply providing information on policy and process is not sufficient to move people towards a more flexible working culture. Managers need to understand how to manage flexible workers and a mixed team of office based and remote workers, as well as the many potential business and individual benefits of working more flexibly.

Flexible working has the potential to bring significant benefits to your organisation and employees. It can support the return to the workplace on a practical level, help employees to cope with ongoing issues relating to the pandemic, and help to maintain hygiene and social distancing while the virus still presents a considerable risk.

In the longer term, it can enable you to address some of your key people strategies, including talent acquisition, productivity, employee engagement, retention, gender pay and sustainability. Flexible working will therefore be a key issue for employers in the months to come and beyond.

For help with implementing flexible working, or if you have any other issues, do call me on 0118 940 3032 or click here to email me.

Edited from a CIPD article