From ‘COVID-flex’ to ‘Fair Flex’ in the new workplace

Posted: 12 April 2021, in News

I was pleased to participate in Social Enterprise Scotland’s recent webinar ‘Fair Work and the new workplace.’ 

To consider the future of the workplace, we need first to understand how working lives – and how and where work is delivered – have changed for people during the pandemic. Because while business models and ways of working have been disrupted on a near-universal scale, our research at the Carnegie UK Trust documents wide variations of experience of living and working through the pandemic, depending on our work and personal circumstances.

It’s important to remember that under half of the workforce have been working mainly from home during the pandemic – it may feel ubiquitous when you are speaking to other people day in day out on Zoom calls, but it is still the preserve of a large minority.

Numbers have fluctuated, but in April 2020 just after the first lockdown around 43% of the workforce were working from home. We must not lose sight of the reality of working lives for the large groups of workers who have been continuing to go out to their physical place of work throughout the pandemic, or whose sectors have been shut down, in our discussions about the future of the workplace. 

However the enforced mass homeworking experiment for just under half of the workforce has undoubtedly been a game-changer, opening up many possibilities for the future that we need to consider and plan for. 

There are calls for the potential for greater flexibility and work-life balance to become an embedded part of work from now on, while also having awareness of the inequalities exacerbated by home working and its negative aspects. 

For those who are currently working from home, and for employers who are thinking of extending use of home working, what are the risks, opportunities and learning to be considered? 

  • Home-working and flexibility are not synonymous. Flexibility can also come from e.g. flexitime, greater input and notice of shift patterns, compressed hours or job shares. We need to consider how to advance flexibility in all its positive forms, so that more job roles across the income spectrum offer forms of flexibility which enable work-life balance, even in those professions where home working is not an option or where home working is not the worker’s preference. Nor does remote working only have to take place from home. As the webinar speaker from the Melting Pot pointed out, co-working spaces exist and have real expansion potential to offer more social, well-provisioned workplaces for those for whom home-working is not comfortable or congenial. 
  • COVID-flex is not ‘fair flex.’ Fair Flex denotes flexible working arrangements that are mutually agreed and beneficial to both workers and managers. The COVID-necessitated move to home working was overnight and mandatory, taking place against a backdrop of anxiety, isolation and pressures of working in a cramped or stressful home environment or combining work with childcare and home-schooling. We should not simply roll over the ways of working we have been forced to adapt during the pandemic into the future, because in many ways they may not be optimal or sustainable. 
  • Home is not an equal place. Women are disproportionately likely to undertake more childcare and housework tasks at home. Housing inequality is also a huge issue. Young workers and those on low pay or in major urban centres are more likely to live in housing conditions wholly unsuitable to homeworking, perhaps in flat shares, or having to work from a chest of drawers in the bedroom. In this vein, how do we address the risk that the additional costs of creating appropriate home working spaces, and being at home for more of the day, will fall to workers? For a fair future of work, what extra staff payments and provisions should employers consider? 
  • How do we implement ‘hybrid working’ in a way that is flexible and fair? Polling conducted on attitudes towards home working suggests many people want to be able to combine the attributes of home and office-based working going forward. But there are challenges in designing hybrid working policies which adequately reconcile the different needs and preferences among the workforce. Rigid procedures for accessing the office or mandated ‘office days’ undermine the goals of flexibility and control. While allowing individuals to decide their place and hours of work with limited parameters could undermine social support and cohesion. It may lead to a ‘tier-two’ workforce, with different opportunities for visibility, social contact and learning for those mostly going into the office compared to those mostly staying at home.   

Employers are going to be at the frontier of weighing up these considerations, trialling approaches and adapting ways of working. Employers considering extending the use of home working beyond the period that it is necessary need to consider employee wellbeing, team dynamics, staff skills development and progression, and the impact of all of these forces on business outcomes. For fair work, it is imperative that workers’ voices, needs and preferences are given adequate weight in decision making. 

Social enterprises – who – as one of the speakers in the webinar said, reach across the boundaries of commercial and social impact – may be extremely well positioned to model approaches that can demonstrate a future of work that achieves a better equilibrium between work and personal fulfilment. 

Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust

Carnegie UK Trust Logo
  1. I first came across the highly useful terms ‘COVID-flex’ from Flexibility Works and ‘Fair Flex’ from Timewise, who are both flexible working consultancies, campaign and research organisations.