FEATURE7 April 2021

Changing the way we work for good

Covid-19 Features Trends UK

A year on from the onset of the pandemic, the working world is at a key juncture, with organisations and staff having an opportunity to take a more flexible approach and reframe the role of work. By Katie McQuater.

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Many in the research industry have been working from home since last spring, and while restrictions are starting to ease, our working habits have changed. Rather than springing ‘back to normal’, there is an opportunity to overhaul the way the industry works, according to speakers at a recent Flex Forum panel discussion held by the MRS.

“We’re in a portal where we can change the way we work in future,” said Annie Auerbach, founder of Starling and author of a book on flexible working, but noted that to do this, businesses should offer “genuine flex”.

“Flex is not working from home – what we have been doing is working from home during a crisis. It’s not the vision of flex we’d all hoped for.”

Flexibility may no longer be a perk for employees but rather a point of difference for companies looking to attract new employees or retain current staff. Auerbach cited the findings of a survey published by the Times, which found that 49% of workers claimed they would leave their jobs if flexible working options were not offered after the pandemic.

However, businesses need to do more than just offer flexibility, said Auerbach – they need to create a work culture founded on trust.  

“Don’t believe that people are ‘shirking from home’. If anything, they’re working longer hours – you need to help them rather than digital surveillance and checking up on them.  We need a new vision of what trust means in the workplace,” she said.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, who carry out 75% of the world’s unpaid work and are more likely to leave the workforce to care for children or elderly relatives. While they stand to gain from organisations adopting more flexibility, that doesn’t make it a “women’s problem that needs to be solved by women”, said Auerbach, who points to discourse around having “the right people in the room” to make decisions about working culture.

She said: “That puts all the pressure on women’s shoulders or people of colour to be the ones that are changemakers. We all need to do it together. If we have positions of power, we need to not just dump it on the people who are most depleted by this crisis.” 

Danielle Todd, insight director at Relish and London lead at Women in Research (WIRe), also discussed the importance of allyship within companies and teams.

“If you see comments about ‘part timers’ – it’s about saying: ‘so what?’ It’s about being an ally. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ for the special interest groups over there, it’s about making work better for all of us – that includes things that may not personally affect you or benefit you, but they benefit others and the company you’re working in.”

Catherine Becker, lead for Women and Advertising Communications London (Wacl)’s Flexible First campaign, pointed to five key areas for companies to focus on if they want to become a ‘flexible first’ organisation.

First, HR policy and knowledge: the government has a briefing paper on the various types of flexible working, and Becker said: “There’s lots of different ways of thinking about ‘flexible first’ and we almost need to be flexible in our thinking about flexible working.”

She also said Wacl encourages all jobs to be advertised as flexible.

There needs to be adequate support from the perspective of infrastructure and technology within organisations to manage flexible working at scale and to support employees and leaders, making sure they have training and resources at their disposal, Becker said. Metrics are also important – is the company set up to measure the benefits of flexibility? This includes productivity, recruitment and retention, business cost and employee engagement.

Lastly, Becker noted the role of culture and leadership within organisations. “Are the top management leading on working flexibly? If we go back to a time where the leaders are in the office, it [may feel] awkward for some of the team not to be – that cultural change is really important and it’s led by the top.”

Rewarding output rather than “presenteeism” in terms of how performance reviews are structured can help to espouse that shift in culture, Becker added.

Seemingly lighthearted comments about people working part-time can add to their “cognitive load”, said Todd, making them feel they have to justify it. She said colleagues have a role to play in changing the dialogue.

“Decentralising the economic role and saying: ‘I’m going off to see my kids and partner because I love them’ – we almost need to give ourselves that freedom and respect others that they have that freedom and that they have other roles in their lives as well as work.”