There has been a marked shift in working practices since the pandemic with many employers and employees adopting a flexible working approach. New research by the Equal Parenting Project (the Study) found that 59.5% of managers believe working from home improves the productivity of employees. Other types of flexible working are also associated with an increase in productivity. 44.1% of managers felt part-time work increased productivity and 43.7% felt that compressed hours had the same effect. Despite this, 41.9% of managers still regard long hours as being crucial for career progression.

The change in attitudes towards working from home has altered how organisations view their office space. The Study found that 33.7% of managers reported that their organisation had reduced or was planning to reduce the amount of office space available. These organisations will likely be hoping to reap the financial benefits of downsizing. In addition, remaining office space is often being repurposed. 9.7% of managers said there were fewer shared offices, 21.8% said there was more space for events and/or workshops and 12.4% said there was more space to encourage wellbeing.

The Study recommends that organisations should assume that all jobs will be available for some form of flexible working. This includes adding the relevant information to job advertisements and introducing mechanisms to ensure that the commitments of the organisation are met. In addition, it recommends that policymakers should encourage larger companies (with over 250 employees) to report on the use of flexible working as part of gender pay gap reporting and make this information widely available to the public.

The impact of workplace policies on parenting choices

Flexible working policies impact the parenting choices of employees. The Study found that 78% of managers believe caring responsibilities should be shared between both parents; however, only 40% said that their organisation supports parents to do this. This may partly be due to only 43% of managers receiving advice or training to help the organisation support employees who are balancing work and their childcare responsibilities.

In addition, it is particularly important to support fathers with caring responsibilities to ensure gender equality in the workplace. Following Covid-19, fathers may be more likely to request flexible working in the future. This could be due to the rise in working from home which allowed them to be more involved in the daily life of their children whilst still being able to work their required hours and/or meet potential targets.

Overall, it seems as though there is a clear disconnect between managers' views on shared parental responsibility and the steps taken by organisations to support parents, and in particular fathers, who are navigating parenthood. The Study recommends that organisations should actively encourage men of all ages to work flexibly and be vocal about it so that this working practice can be integrated into the working culture.

Monitoring staff working at home

The considerable shift in employees choosing to work from home has meant organisations have had to adapt their supervision methods. Amongst the managers surveyed, 27% reported that they have downloaded computer software to monitor the performance of employees. In addition, some managers surveyed reported that they have taken steps for their organisation to monitor staff emails (28%), staff phone calls (14.7%) and staff typing (5%). Despite taking these measures, only 17% of managers agreed that surveillance improves employee productivity.

Consulting with staff who are working remotely

The fallout from Covid-19 has also influenced processes of consultation and engagement. The Study found that organisations rely on informal employee feedback (46.6%), trade union representation (28.6%) and non-union staff representation (10.1%). This may demonstrate that organisations are seeking to either create, maintain or improve open conversations with staff, especially as employees are often less visible in the office space due to the rise of flexible working.

Government response to consultation on flexible working

The government's response to the 2021 consultation, Making Flexible Working the Default, describes how there is no 'one size fits all' approach to work arrangements and the increase in flexible working is a clear way to support staff with caring responsibilities whilst also boosting workforce diversity. The government supports the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill (currently at the Report Stage in the House of Commons) which would give legal effect to most of the proposals covered in the consultation. These include making the right to request flexible working apply from the first day of employment, requiring employers to consult with staff on flexible working options before rejecting a request, and developing guidance on dealing with temporary requests for flexible working.

Next steps for employers

The change in attitudes towards flexible working since the pandemic has significantly altered workplace practices. These look set to become a permanent part of the world of work. There is clear shift towards greater flexibility, particularly when it comes to accepting home-working arrangements.

However, there is work to be done to maximise the potential for increased staff productivity, engagement and retention through embracing flexible working practices as a permanent feature of organisational practice. Employers need to make sustainable adaptations to their staff management and communication processes, finding ways to encourage a culture of transparency and trust in remote and hybrid teams. There is also work to be done to promote equality, diversity and inclusion through openness to flexible working practices for a wider group of employees.

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