Many businesses have been driving working culture change and reshaping the way we work for years. Still, it has been a slow burn, a drop in the ocean, in a society entrenched in outdated 9-5, Monday - Friday working patterns. Culture change doesn't happen quickly. This we know.
In recent years the momentum to find smarter ways of working has increased - on the cusp of a flexible working revolution - but not quite there. So, while COVID-19 has been devastating for our health, economy and livelihoods, there will be an unintended positive legacy of this crisis: shifting the way we work forever. Long-term, the benefits are likely to include improvements in health and wellbeing of employees, more productive businesses and achieving sustainability targets faster.
Step back in time before the pandemic and the demand for flexibility was huge in Scotland, with around 75% of workers saying they already worked flexibly or would like to. The need for flexible working goes far and wide in society and extends way beyond working parents: pursuing a passion project, volunteering, studying, a side hustle or simply to achieve a better work-life balance and improve their health and wellbeing.
Flexible working also makes smart business sense. Employees who can integrate all aspects of their life are more engaged, motivated, more productive and more likely to go the extra mile for the business. Reducing the number of people rammed into a workplace allows organisations to reduce their overheads, carbon footprint and create a better working environment.
I feel like we are living through a live social experiment on how we live and work. Lockdown measures have seen millions of us switch to home working almost overnight. Many employees now realise that they can perform their roles remotely, and employers see first hand that customer needs can be met, and teams can communicate, collaborate and be productive from afar.
But remember: this is not even 'normal' home working. Just think what we could achieve when employers embrace remote working - by wrapping support around employees, investing in the right technology, and training managers to lead remotely.
Of course, home working is only one form of flexible working. It isn't for everyone, and it isn't possible for every role. Indeed, key workers - who can't work from home - are the ones getting us through this crisis.
However, as plans to restart the economy come to fruition, home working will remain the default for some time. For those roles that cannot be done from home, workplaces are going to have to be creative and adaptive to ensure reduced numbers of employees on-site at any one time. I guess that will mean establishing a range of different working patterns, mixing up start and finish times and potentially changing business hours. All these ways of working provide opportunities for greater flexibility and have the potential to deliver real business benefits if co-designed with employees.
Too often, organisations make the decisions from the top without talking to employees – those with new ideas and know what can work in their teams. Through this crisis, many organisations have empowered employees to find solutions, and, unsurprisingly, workers have responded by demonstrating resilience and creativity. I hope organisations continue to take such a collaborative and creative approach as we go forward.
For businesses to survive and thrive, employers and employees alike are going to have to be open-minded and agile about where, when and for how long people work. This flexibility requires leadership based on empathy, trust and transparency, and a shift to rewarding output as opposed to hours worked.
I am devastated at the impact Covid-19 has had across the globe and closer to home for people I care about. I have worked for many years to encourage a more flexible way of working, so my silver lining is that flexible working is now in the fast lane. If we seize this moment, flexible working could accelerate positive change in all number of areas including equality and diversity, health and wellbeing, business productivity and sustainability.