When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, many workplaces had to facilitate largescale remote working arrangements with little notice. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has posed and continues to pose economic and logistical challenges for the higher education sector, as well as for the UK economy as a whole.
However, with new research indicating that lockdown has resulted in changing attitudes towards flexible working, now is a good time to reflect on the positive impact of encouraging new ways of working and how temporary changes that have worked well, might now be adopted on a permanent basis.
Flexible working has been under the spotlight for some time now. The right to request flexible working (subject to meeting eligibility criteria) is enshrined in law. Higher education institutions may be more or less inclined to support flexible working requests, depending on the individual's circumstances and the demands of a particular role.
In some ways, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has levelled the playing field by imposing a period of time where work has had to be carried out remotely wherever possible. In many cases, this has prompted accelerated investment in remote working capabilities, including in IT infrastructure and equipment.
The coronavirus lockdown has demonstrated the effectiveness of technology, including using video conferencing facilities to collaborate with colleagues, complete training and engage with students. There is a reduced need for travel, and geographical barriers have been removed or reduced.
Having now undergone a period of several months where working from home has become the new normal, some higher education institutions have used this period as 'proof of concept' that some categories of staff can work efficiently and maintain performance regardless of where they are based. With the benefit of that insight, there may be more willingness going forward to support a cultural shift towards more flexible working, both in terms of location and work pattern, which has long been seen as desirable by many employees.
With home working potentially becoming the norm, geographic limitations which may have previously hindered recruitment may no longer apply to a number of roles within higher education institutions. This widens the available talent pool and also helps to retain staff who may wish to relocate but who would otherwise like to remain in post.
Staff who work regularly from home will save time on their commute and have more time to spend with their family and/or pursuing outside interests. This can lead to increased job satisfaction, efficiency and general wellbeing.
However, it should not be taken for granted that all staff are achieving a better work-life balance just because they are working from home. Some workers report finding it harder to switch off at the end of the day when they are based at home. Whatever the reality for your staff, the potential to free up more time during the day is there, albeit support may be required to help make the adjustment to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Reduced commuting and work related travel has led to environmental benefits, with significantly reduced air pollution levels and more people taking up cycling or walking during lockdown.
As higher education institutions are working towards environmental targets and/or pursuing their own environmental agenda, there may be a desire to promote working practices that are more environmentally friendly. HEIs may also seize the opportunity to build on positive lifestyle changes staff have made as part of a wider promotion of wellbeing. These could be turned into a good news story not only from the perspective of work-life balance and good health, but also in respect of the associated reduced environmental impact and the positive impact this may have on the institution's reputation.
It is sensible to consider the aspects of life that might have become harder during lockdown. Some workers report feeling socially isolated.
HEIs may be in a position to help reduce any such feelings of loneliness, for example by arranging remote and/or socially distanced socials, by providing access to counselling and wellbeing support services, and by ensuring staff keep in regular contact during the working day even when away from the office.
It is also sensible to be mindful of the balance faced by some workers between providing childcare or other care to family members and performing their paid work. It should be recognised that the impact of these competing responsibilities might disproportionately affect female staff and this in itself may encourage continued discussions about how institutions can offer support and accommodate more flexible working arrangements over time.
As an employer, if you are considering any permanent change to your working practices, it is essential to engage with staff in order to understand what is working well for them, what areas could be improved and how they would prefer to work going forward. Any such engagement can take place on an informal basis in the first instance, for example by speaking to employee focus groups and/or conducting staff surveys. If you are considering making a permanent change to staff terms and conditions, it will be necessary to consult formally with staff with the aim of reaching an agreement on the proposed change(s).