Working nine to five, what a way to make a living. Flexible working policies have been a hot topic for several years now, but the conversation has reached a fever pitch since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whether it's full days in the office or a four-day work week, blended working or flexible start times – everyone has an opinion on what suits them, their workplace and their needs best. And the onset of the pandemic has only exacerbated conversations about whether remote working should remain in place indefinitely.
So what should employers be considering when creating a flexible working policy? Should it prioritize a return to the office, or is remote work really the future? And does remote working actually hinder workers far more than those at the top might realize?
Is remote work stifling creativity?
The need for remote working and limited interpersonal contact has affected every industry differently, however many of those in the creative industries have reported difficulties in developing and executing fresh ideas from the confines of the home working environment.
Lauren Priestley, creative director at Redwood BBDO, says: “I think we have all battled over the last year when it comes to being creative. In the working-from-home world, there’s no getting away from the realization that the brain does think more creatively when you’re surrounded by other people.
“Of course, my workmates and I have come up with all sorts of interesting ways around having things like brainstorms remotely, but we have lost the ability to mock things up in real-time, and the very basic ways of talking to each other.”
Andrew Dimitriou, chief executive officer of VMLY&R EMEA, says that in many ways, the absence of a life outside of work has also been stifling for creatives. “At the end of the day, we are ambassadors of culture, and what happens when culture moves online for a year? Access to culture plays a massive part in creativity and your ability to be bold in your creative ideas.
“Particularly in the back half of the pandemic, we have been really struggling to find creative stimuli so we have been trying to bring the outside in – sharing ideas from one market to the other and looking to them for inspiration, because people are also really struggling with the lack of human connection as well.”
On whether the return to a nine to five in the office would be the cure for this lack of creative spark, Priestley says: “I think when it comes to heading back to the office for things like creative sessions or brainstorms there will always be a preference there. But in many other ways, the role of the office has changed completely.”
While many have struggled with the lack of human connection while working from home, realizations have also been made around the benefits of a more flexible working day.
Rebecca Bezzina, managing director at R/GA, tells The Drum: “There are certainly positives to the type of working the pandemic has ushered in. People’s commute times have gone, video conferences have become a great way to have more voices heard, and it has created a more level playing field in a number of ways.”
Lorraine Jennings, director of wellbeing services and culture change at Nabs, agrees that home working and flexible working does go a long way to create a more inclusive work environment, as it allows people to create more of a work-life balance.
“Flexible working helps to create an inclusive and supportive culture at work, it gives people autonomy – an important component of what helps people thrive – and it enables people with differing needs to work in a way that supports their lives as a whole,” she says.
Jennings elaborates that flexible working is also helping to level the playing field when it comes to parenting, saying that “people have awakened to the benefits of flexible working as something that can work for everybody, not just working parents (and specifically mothers, who have tended to be the main people taking up flexible working) and carers”.
“Many fathers who use our services have reported enjoying spending more time with their kids, being able to do the school run and so on, and, importantly, this is becoming more socially acceptable in workplaces.”
There are, however, certain expectations around presenteeism in the workplace that would need addressing were flexible working to become the norm.
Russell Brimlow is a partner at global HR and legal firm Lewis Silkin. He believes that the turn away from the office as an equalizing space will stall efforts in making workplaces more inclusive.
“In every workforce, there is going to be a wide variety of needs when it comes to Covid safety, as well as the interplay of mental health concerns with productivity and creativity, alongside working patterns and working styles,” he says.
“Early on in the working-from-home revelation many of the positives became clear. Working parents had more time with their children, childless people had more time for other activities – not to mention the time and money that was saved by not commuting – but I think what has become rapidly clear is that remote working largely benefits a certain type of person in that it caters to leaders.
“Remote working caters to those with comfortable houses, decent IT equipment and peace and quiet in which to work, and overall massively benefits the people who are already in power in the workplace.
“The office space acts as a melting pot and being out of it too much is bad for creativity, it’s bad for diversity and it’s bad for social mobility.”
Priestley also points out the negative effect that home working has on people who are already marginalized in the workplace, including juniors, women and those from a non-traditional background, saying research suggests that these groups will often “rely more heavily on office culture and other workmates in order to enforce their roles”.
It’s even been widely acknowledged that “younger members of teams are less likely to speak up on Zoom when only one person can speak at a time, and women are even less likely to speak up, and when they do will often get drowned out”.
However, for those who cannot and do not wish to return to the office for a variety of reasons, Brimlow warns firms against the risk of indirect discrimination if office presenteeism was seen to be favoring those with the ability to be in the office more regularly.
“You don’t need to say it’s a requirement out loud, but if there’s a provisional practice that the people who are in the office the most get the best opportunities, get the promotions, then you could start to see indirect discrimination claims coming in.”
Brimlow’s statement follows controversial comments from WeWork chief exec Sandeep Mathrani earlier this month, who said that the most engaged employees are the ones who are keen to return to the office.
Jennings says that the key to avoiding scenarios such as this will be targeting the culture of presenteeism both online and in the office, saying that “employers should support teams in setting clear boundaries around their working hours”.
Flexible work can’t be all taking and no giving
There is no denying that workers across the industry have benefited from the flexibility in working that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in. And while the negative impact of the pandemic on issues such as mental health will need to be addressed long term, most see flexible working as a key component to addressing the crisis in poor mental health within the ad industry.
As Jennings from Nabs concludes, employees will need to be consulted on exactly what they want and need from employers going forward, if flexible working policies are to have an optimum impact on wellbeing. Workers will “want to be consulted and listened to throughout the process, to ensure that the policy meets the diverse needs of everyone in the organization”.
“As our stats show, many of them are looking for a change. If the back-to-work policy reinforces pre-pandemic working practices, without showing any learnings or improvements from the experience of the past year, that will be an issue.
“Flexibility and empathy are key. The last year took away one of our fundamental freedoms: choice. If you as an employer can give some choice back to your staff, you’ll be empowering them and boosting their morale considerably,” she says.
While there are certain, irreplaceable benefits to time spent with peers and colleagues in the office, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for robust wellbeing policies within organizations across the world. Flexible working will likely form a key component of wellbeing policies in the years to come, as workplaces will be forced to address toxic working culture, outdated working practices and the need to create a sincerely equitable workplace if they are to thrive in the future.