Voices

Busting the myth of the great office return

How not to miss the once in a generation opportunity to reshape work for the better.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“The genie is out of the bottle, the floodgates that businesses were terrified would open, have opened, and the cogs kept turning.” Katy Fridman, Founder of Flexible Working People is describing the revolution in the workplace that the coronavirus crisis ushered in virtually overnight. For despite the slew of negative headlines that suggest ‘WFH is killing your career’ or ‘Go back to the office or risk losing your job’, it’s flexible working that has kept many parts of the creative industries and beyond moving in the midst of the pandemic. As businesses across the industry place their return to the office plans on hold in the wake of further restrictions, the need for a period of reflection on the future of work has become increasingly apparent.

For while the crisis has revolutionised the workplace at speed, it has also underlined the myths and misunderstanding that still surround flexible working. “Headlines in the media telling us to ‘Get Back to Work’; this is truly galling, given people across the country never actually stopped working. In fact, mostly they’ve been pushed to work harder and longer in the most challenging of circumstances amidst the panic of lockdown and the additional pressures of balancing unpredictable childcare challenges with work pressure,” explains Fridman. She believes that the resilience of the workforce and people’s adaptability to change and to work flexibly is actually what’s kept businesses alive.

It’s not home or office, it’s a blend of both.

Katy Fridman

Building a future of work that works for everyone

Far from being a tale of failure, the past six months have proved just how many of the barriers to flexible working were in fact entirely imagined. “Flexible working now more than ever is the future of work and companies that don’t embrace change and don’t listen to their people will struggle to attract and retain staff and to remain relevant in the long term,” adds Fridman.

She believes the reality is that the tide has changed, and people don’t want to just ‘get back to work’. They’ve lived the alternative and they want to have some control over how and where they work. Progressive businesses are also seeing the benefits and are working with their people to create a new type of workplace where it’s not one size fits all. As Fridman explains: “It’s not home or office, it’s a blend of both and it’s about breaking down the barriers that have traditionally existed to create a more inclusive workplace.”

Fridman is on the pulse of this changing workplace, at the helm of a vibrant Facebook community of flexible workers and those seeking to work more flexibly. A community which effectively lifts the lid on the gap between headlines and the lived experiences of employees. 

“Some companies are still refusing to flex and want bums back on seats and hours clocked. Others are embracing change and business transformation. What’s exciting is seeing change in mindsets from industries notorious for inflexibility and hearing from business leaders who are now embracing change and finding different ways to work,” adds Fridman.

Yet while Fridman has long advocated for flexible working, long seen as one of the key drivers as closing the gender-pay gap, she does not see the current situation as a panacea. She believes there will be teething problems as we move to a new agile way of working, and it will take time to adjust for some more than others. But, she adds, “at the end of it all if we have knocked down the presenteeism barriers and if we can focus on the role vs the location, then we will have made some incredible progress in the workplace, and hopefully that will mean letting more people back in.”   

61%
said they would like to work from home/office 80/20
24%
said they would like to work from the home/office 20/80
14%
said they would like to work equally at both

Source: Flexible Working For People Like Me

The rush to return to ‘normal’

Fridman notes that the majority of employers and business leaders are looking to their employees to make the right decision about safely returning to the office. A recent poll of over 10,000 people from the Flexible Working Community revealed that 75% would like to work from home at least 50% of the time moving forwards. It's a shift which is also reflected by business leaders. As Fridman explains: “They don't just want to turn back the clock and return to long commutes and business travel as they have realised the value of these hours they have been losing until now.”

Active listening and an empathy-first approach is vital for companies to attract and retain talent. “We need more examples like M&C Saatchi and Twitter, big and well respected companies to set the example and embrace flexible working and the huge benefits it has on the workplace as this will certainly help drive forwards its continued adoption post pandemic,” adds Fridman.

For a people-focused business, recognising the growing importance of being flexible to attracting and retaining talent in the long-term should not be ignored. The danger is that companies that feel employees are simply ‘lucky to have a job’ will fall victim to an irrevocable brain drain. 

Fridman believes the market impact is in fact really simple in that companies that don't adopt and embrace flexible and remote working will in time become less attractive, less competitive and less relevant. “Right now, the economy is hurting, and people are trying to hold on to their jobs whatever it takes. But when we emerge and start to bounce back, employees will have a choice about where and how they work and will choose to work for companies that trust them to do their job and deliver results irrespective of whether they are physically in the office,” she explains. According to Flexible Working People’s research, flexible working is one of the key drivers of where people choose to work and is cited by many as more important than salary or promotion. 

What will also be critical to making this a success is business leaders role modelling flexible working where employees see that it's an acceptable and common practice.

Katy Fridman

Rebalancing the workplace

The current crisis has brought with it very few certainties. Yet perhaps one such certainty is the notion that an industry that can be so creative in its output can no longer afford to be so uncreative in when, where and how much people work. That much prized ‘agency culture’ amounts to nothing if it only occurs within the four walls of an agency bar. When the discussion focuses too much on the four-walls of an office, rather than the people within it, we all lose out.

As Fridman explains: “When planning a flexible and agile workplace, rather than individuals simply choosing office or home, companies will have to create work practices which blend the different needs of their people and the needs of the business and one size certainly won't fit all. Planning flexible working by team, rather than by individual need is also key to avoiding 'us and them' and the new 'hybrid' workplace model will see companies embracing a mix of time spent in and out of the office, time spent with colleagues, and time spent working remotely.”

From concession to progression

The truth is that for many parts of the industry flexible working has been primarily given to working mothers as a concession. Yet building a future of work that works for everyone demands a wholesale shift in approach. As Fridman notes, as we move towards this hybrid flexible model, the workplace will become more fluid with people visiting the office for a 'purpose' rather than just going to 'work'. She explains: “What will also be critical to making this a success is business leaders role modelling flexible working where employees see that it's an acceptable and common practice, that the culture of the organisation has fundamentally shifted and that there is no longer a stigma to 'working from home'. 

Six months in and leaders and employees across the industry will doubtless confirm that enforced remote working in the midst of a global pandemic is no panacea. Yet, when so many have lost so much in this pandemic it is vital we hold onto what we have gained and share what we have learned so far. There is no return to normal. 

 

As part of our Future of Work series, Nicola Kemp, Creativebrief's Editorial Director spoke to industry leaders about what the future of work looks like.