Jeff Phipps, Managing Director at ADP

Employers now need to re-focus on their long-term strategies for remote working 

More so than any other year in recent memory, 2020 presented challenge after challenge for businesses in every industry. One key change is mass remote working, which has led to a significant shift in perceptions around flexible working, and the demand for comprehensive flexible working policies – both now and in the future – has increased exponentially.

The initial rush to adapt to the Covid-19 outbreak resulted in a hasty, short-term response to remote and flexible working, so employers now need to re-focus on their long-term strategies.

Contrary to popular belief, flexible working is not a cure-all for workplace issues – and can, in fact, exacerbate many.

To best support employees, businesses need to improve communication, consider work/life balance, and understand external pressures:

1. Listen to your employees

When planning any business policy, much less one that completely shapes the way individuals work, it is hard to underestimate the importance of listening to your employees. It sounds simple, but this is where many leaders fail. Working on assumptions, statistics, or executive insight alone can lead to policies that alienate workers by misunderstanding their needs. Instead, starting conversations with individuals or small groups helps to inform employers about the real experiences of their workforce, and their perspective on flexible working.

This communication should go both ways, with managers being as transparent as possible about company updates and goals. If 50% of employees are going to be able to go into the office from February, communicate this – and the reasons behind it – as soon as you have the information, rather than at the end of January. Clear dialogue keeps everyone better informed and – crucially - also helps everyone feel like they are part of the same team.

2. Support work/life balance management

Flexible working usually comprises, at least in part, employees working from home – which, if managed poorly, can damage work/life balance, disadvantage certain groups, and exacerbate gender inequalities. Home working eliminates the distance between home and work – both physically and mentally. While some employees may thrive in this situation, others suffer from a lack of physical space, necessary equipment, and mental distancing.

This is often the case for younger and less financially established employees, who may be flat-sharing or working in small makeshift spaces. When given the choice between being home or office-based, these employees may choose home working for financial reasons – such as to save on the cost of commuting – even if this may damage their mental health and wellbeing. Make sure to cater for those who need a break from home, whether this is the ability to work in the office or initiatives to help restore balance and adequately resource workers.

3. Supply the tools needed to work effectively

If your organisation has instituted a working from home policy, it is vital that employees are supplied with the tools they need to work effectively. Whether that’s an ergonomic chair, a proper desk, or a second monitor, it is unrealistic to expect employees to work to a high standard if they are not equipped to do so. In addition to the physical tools required to work effectively, employees need mental tools too.

The lack of face to face contact and spontaneous interaction that happens in the physical office is being felt by workers across the globe, as social isolation takes a toll on our collective mental health. Make sure to proactively maintain your company culture remotely – as this is no longer supported by physical togetherness – and enhance the social aspects of work to mitigate against loneliness.

4. Prevent burnout and fatigue

As the blurring of our work and home lives can lead to longer working hours and less physical movement, it is crucial that team leaders take an active role in supporting their employee’s mental health to prevent burnout and fatigue. The global pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to everyone’s lives, and senior leaders must be conscious of the working culture they promote and instil in their teams.

Remote working can make it harder for employees to reach out if they are struggling, and so it is critical that communication channels are available and easily accessible, and that workers feel empowered to speak openly and honestly with their managers.

5. Avoid exacerbating workplace gender inequality

Offering the option between working at home or in the office may seem like an attractive strategy to mitigate against some of the issues with flexible working, but be aware that employees may not be making as free a choice as it seems. The burden of unpaid domestic labour and childcare still falls unfairly on women, who may feel pressure to continue working at home to facilitate this.

Male colleagues who face less barriers to being physically present at work then gain greater influence in decision-making and higher chances of promotion, exacerbating workplace gender inequality. There’s no simple solution to this issue, but an individualised, personalised approach can help. Understand the reasons people are opting for or against working flexibly and use this to build better policies.

If they consider and act on each of these issues, employers will be able to keep their employees engaged and working at their best, even if they cannot be in the office. Feeling valued and heard by business leaders is essential to productivity: when individuals feel like part of a team, they will help a team to work.

Jeff Phipps, Managing Director at ADP

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