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Flexible working: where are we now?

Flexible working: where are we now? 1

By Liza Robbins, Chief Executive of Kreston Global

Three years ago, no one could have predicted that remote working would come to play such a huge role in the business world, so quickly. Working from home was something that many workers all over the world were familiar with pre-2020, but the pandemic accelerated it.

Now that the pandemic is receding in most parts of the world, it’s clear that there is a wild disparity of attitudes to flexible working. Some businesses are happy for their employees to work almost entirely remotely, with occasional or even annual meetings. Other businesses have taken a much more hardline approach, insisting that their employees be present in the office all or most of the time. Where then does the future lie, for the vast majority of businesses?

In my view flexible working will continue to play a much larger role than it did before the pandemic, as detractors gradually come around to the benefits, and the reality. However, that will require care and thought on the part of business leaders, as they weigh up the benefits of flexible working, and implement them into their businesses’ culture.

Firstly, the phrase “remote working” deserves to fall out of use in business. The word “remote” suggests that people are away from the business, both physically and psychologically. This couldn’t be further from the truth for the vast majority of people. In my role as Chief Executive I used to travel extensively pre-pandemic – presenting at conferences, meeting member firms. I was rarely in the physical registered office of the business but no one would describe me as remote. Indeed, as Chief Executive I was at the heart of our business, despite the fact that the activities were not being carried out at our business’s registered office.

Nor is this unusual; any company with more than one office only sees their senior managers in the office some of the time, but no one would suggest that such leaders of global, or European, or multi office business, are “remote” from any of them. Moreover, some businesses have always carried out their work at clients’ premises. In our sector, auditors used to sit at clients’ offices for years, and in some cases still do.

Different businesses, in other words, have always had different modus operandi, and will continue to do so. But some things now make flexible working more viable, the main being technology. When cloud computing became mainstream several years ago, there was much discussion and debate about the risks of having confidential client information on the cloud. The pandemic has shown that we can work on the cloud, resulting in a huge move towards cloud-based technology. It proved that in the face of unforeseen events – whether disease, climate-related, or other – technology is there to support business continuity.

So where are the issues? Perhaps the main stumbling block for businesses on the journey towards a flexible culture is trusting employees. For flexible working to work, businesses need to be clear on what they want employees to achieve. Team meetings need to happen on a regular basis, alongside one-to-one touchpoints and of course ad hoc touchpoints too. Employers need to provide training and support, while avoiding the tendency to micromanage.

There are other challenges: businesses will in many cases be negotiating with employees about the extent to which they should be in the office. Some employees want to work almost entirely home post-pandemic, while some want to work entirely from the office. Managing those requirements alongside the needs of the team and the wider business will mean striking a balance. In addition there are a number of wider considerations that need to be taken into account, such as whether employees should be paid a working from home allowance to cover the costs of their internet, or furnish their home work space. It is relatively straightforward to monitor the health and safety arrangements of office workers, and to for example supply them with the right chair if they have issues that require it. Pastoral care is much harder where workers are at home.  This applies to mental health support just as much as physical health support, and in some ways more so, as there is a potential for employees to become isolated in a home working setting.

Another challenge is training. Particularly for more junior members of the workforce, watching more senior members of the team in action is essential to their professional development. If an employee needs to be developed or isn’t attaining the objectives for their role, then employers should feel able to have a conversation about them coming into the office more. Needless to say, this has implications for more senior employees too, who may need to spend more time in the office than they envisaged if their more junior staff need support.

These challenges can be met however and my belief is that overall, flexible working can be more productive than purely office based working, when properly managed. My conversations with Kreston member firms all over the world have largely borne out my belief that flexible working is here to stay in some form or other. The key is to approach the needs of the company in the round and communicate those needs to employees. Those businesses that invest time and leadership will be the ones to see the rewards.

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